☛ Palestine by Joe Sacco, Lake City: Fantagraphics Books, 2001, p. 283. © 2011, Joe Sacco.
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A teenager commits suicide because he or she was repeatedly bullied at school. The phenomenon is frequent enough to have its own word: “bullycide”, or suicide attributable to bullying (see Bullycide: death at playtime by Neil Marr and Tim Field, Oxfordshire: Success Unlimited, 2001). According to a recent study, 28% of American students aged between 12 and 18 reported they were bullied at school during the 2008-2009 school year (see “Student Reports of Bullying and Cyber-Bullying” by Jill DeVoe and Christina Murphy, 2011).
Demonstrations of violence (that is the application of a coercive force ―not exclusively physical― on an unwilling subject) are entangled in a complex of violent causes and violent effects. The subject of a violent act is likely to become in turn an agent of violence. I’m not saying that all victims of violence become violent abusers. I’m saying that a person who is the victim of a violent act is likely to produce violence effects all around her. The suicide of one’s own child represents a violent experience for all the members of the family. The community where it happens will be shaken as well. In some cases the bully or bullies will in turn be subjected to verbal or physical abuse (in a classical but regrettable reaction of retaliation or scapegoating).
Violence is a force that spreads easily in a social organization if it is not promptly dealt with. That is precisely why, in order for us to live together harmoniously, a variety of apparatus such a social contracts, police forces and disciplinary institutions (among others) are needed. Those apparatus aim at restricting violence. Ideally, the only entity authorized to make use of violence (to act in a violent way) is the state. That is how Max Weber saw it:
Nowadays, in contrast, we must say that the state is the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory […] (“Politics as a Vocation” in The Vocation Lectures by Max Weber, tr. by Rodney Livingston, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004, p. 33; PDF available on Filepedia)
Thomas Hobbes shared a similar idea. In his opinion, human beings must give away their sovereignty and accept instead to be governed by a single sovereign state (through the application of a social contract). The important thing to note here is that we do not live together because we love each other but rather because of a contractual agreement:
(…) what is meant by this word body politic, and how it signifieth not the concord, but the union of many men. (Elements of Law by Thomas Hobbes, chap. 8, §7, 1650)
We share the understanding that violence should be forbidden, except in some rare cases. To forbid violence does not mean that violence disappears. It means that violence is temporarily, precariously suspended by the means of a social contract. It can fall back on our heads at anytime. All it needs to become actual again is for a single individual to break the contract. Robbery, aggression, rape, mass murder: those manifestations of violence do not come from outside the “body politic” but from within. To call those perpetrators “monsters” or the extreme crimes they commit “senseless” looks to me like a good way to blind ourselves to the actual condition of our common existence.
The situation is even more unstable with non-adults: they are not citizens in the legal sense of this term (they are not allowed to vote). Nor are they responsible: instead parents are responsible for them. Among other things, it means they cannot answer for their own behavior in regard to the social contract that nonetheless assures the cohesion of the society where they were born and where they live. However, the non-adult has the capacity to become something or, rather, someone. That’s why we (should) care to raise him and to educate him. Without adequate regulation and under certain circumstances a non-adult ―just like an adult― is perfectly capable of violence. This violence may be directed at others, but also at oneself.
Indeed, in some cases violence may be the very last resort for someone who has become (or think he has become) totally powerless. When one feels oppressed to the point that there seem to be no issue one still has the capacity to take his own life (except in rare cases: I’m thinking about voluntary euthanasia which is still related –although indirectly– to the subject matter I’m writing about here). In this final gesture the subject claims sovereignty over his body and his existence. But it is a paradoxical operation since it cannot but lead to the destruction of this very existence. One could say the suicidal individual reclaims his freedom in the very same movement that suppresses all possibilities to enjoy it. In some rare cases, other lives may be taken away in the process.
American comic artist and journalist Joe Sacco was deeply aware of this terrifying situation when he drew the panel depicted above. I especially like the fact that Sacco acknowledges the universality of the problem. Although his graphic novel is mainly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he clearly underlines the explosive potential associated in general with a state of total powerlessness.
[UPDATE – December 14, 2011] On December 13, 2011, Facebook unveiled a new tool designed at preventing suicide. It allows users to “flag” behavior they perceived as suicidal. From Reuters:
Friends are able to report suicidal behavior by clicking a report option next to any piece of content on the site and choosing suicidal content under the harmful behavior option, Facebook spokesman Frederic Wolens said.
Facebook will then email the user in distress a direct link for a private online chat with a crisis representative from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline as well as the group’s phone number. (Reuters: “Facebook launches tool to report suicidal behavior”, December 13, 2011).
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