Introduction by John Waters

Introduction by John Waters

In collision with the facts

It is amazing to observe a culture in action to protect itself from any disintegration of its central truths. I have been doing this for nearly twenty years now in relation to suicide in Ireland, an overwhelmingly male-dominated phenomenon. Anything else that is male-dominated we get to hear about all the time, and in no uncertain terms as to how disapprovingly we should regard such domination. But our treatment of male domination of suicide has been remarkably sotto voce. When we mention at all that this is a syndrome that affects mainly young men, we tend to do so in parentheses, as though as a barely relevant aside. The key fact is buried deep in the mix. In newspaper reports, this generally means the penultimate paragraph. Social scientists talk regularly about suicide, but do so in a manner designed not to find anything out that might upset their existing ideological apple carts.

I repeat: the dramatic increase in suicide in the Ireland of recent times is largely connected to the calamitous increase in suicide by young men. All other categories have remained constant, increased marginally or decreased. Among younger adults, the ratio has gone as high as eleven to one, and is consistently nowadays in, or close to, double figures. While each suicide is lamentable, overall Irish suicide rates are not exceptional, ranking us about 25th in the world. Where we top the league, consistently and by a considerable chalk, are in suicides by young men.

None of the standard explanations for the consistently high disparity between the levels of suicides by males as against females makes any sense. The conventional wisdom among “expert” practitioners, for example – that suicide is linked to mental illness – is tautologous and unenlightening. Why, if mental illness is the issue, is there such an imbalance in what is called the “gender breakdown”? There is no evidence that men are more prone than females to depression or other forms of mental distress or illness. The standard biological explanation “that men are inherently more violent and in suicide turn this violence on themselves” is similarly unconvincing. Why, if this is the key, has male suicide become a major problem only in recent decades?

I have long held the view that, whereas it is sometimes necessary to talk both about the biological difference of males from females and the clinical context in which male distress might be alleviated, we will miss the point if we perceive the issue as a matter of psychiatry. Although the phenomenon of suicide can be tracked in a psychiatric context, its roots are sociological and psychological, which is to say that suicide may be the response – indeed the rational response – of some men to a condition of society that all men have to cope with.

It is possible to outline in only the most speculative fashion what the nature of this condition might be. Certainly, it has something to do with society’s differing expectations of males and females. It is obvious, despite feminist propaganda, that society extends to girls and women a degree of what might accurately be termed unconditional affection, whereas with boys and men it tends to extend affection only on the basis of performance under certain headings. Men have always been expected to be good providers and high achievers, to be strong and emotionally continent, to get on with things without too much of a fuss. These ideas are transmitted to males from the very moment of birth.

And the same culture, which is constructed to transmit these ideas, is also the culture to which a distressed male must look for comfort or relief. And, because the idea of a weakened or “inadequate” man remained so terrifying to this culture, representing a lethal threat to the survival of society, males seeking relief were generally met with hostility, dismissiveness or acute embarrassment. This partly explains why, for the past two decades, Irish society has sought to elide the issue of male suicide.

To the extent that there has been any attempt to examine the suicide issue at all, such initiatives have assumed – after Tolstoy – that, whereas all happy individuals are similar, each unhappy individual is unhappy in his own way. While this approach may be helpful in respect of individual potential suicides, it steers away from sociological explanations, and so is helpful to the objectives of the prevailing ideology.

The statistics suggest that there are grossly exceptional circumstances in modern Irish culture bearing down on young men. I have argued that this consistent and clear-cut sociological pattern demands a sociological approach and requires to be analysed as the detrimental circumstances of other “minorities” are examined: on the assumption that people suffer because of how they are treated. Uniquely, problems afflicting men are analysed in terms of the psychiatric deficiencies of the victms, the defects in male psychology or the “toxic” elements of masculine culture. Every “expert” and agency seeking to explore the phenomenon of suicide in Ireland has arrived at a similar analysis: men are not in touch with/cannot express their emotions. This is usually offered as part of an analysis of social reality defined by its seeking to elide the implications of inconvenient facts.

Some time ago, a leading female Irish academic sent me a copy of a chapter on suicide from a forthcoming book of sociological essays. It was implicitly clear that her intention was to refute my persistent allegation that Irish social scientists had ignored the suicide issue because it did not conform to their preferred ideological paradigm. I had repeatedly pointed out that since “social studies” are largely an offshoot of feminist agitation, studies of the lives of men exist only to the extent that they support the dominant, so called “gender-based” analysis of society, which decrees that difficulties afflicting females are the fault of male-domination, and those afflicting men are likewise the consequence of their alleged domination of women. In other words, men are responsible for all problems experienced by women and also for all problems experienced by them.

The analysis favoured by these academics was what they called “collision culture”, which I understood to mean a clash between traditional values and the shock of modernity. Far from counteracting my commentaries on the sociological approach to suicide, the chapter bore out a point I had consistently made about the withdrawal of sympathy from men as being at the core of the shift in suicide patterns. It amounted not so much to an analysis of suicide as a justification of the drifts that had derived from the implementation of a particular set of ideological prescriptions.

I believe it is necessary, and should be possible, to approach the idea of cultural collision in a neutral manner – ascribing no particular moral value to either tradition or modernity. Unfortunately, the bias of both social scientists and journalists has long rendered their contributions suspect. One of the problems I have with the alleged science of sociology is that it is almost invariably assumed that, unless one clearly states otherwise, one is on the side of “tradition”, i.e. of the structures being collided with by the irresistible force of modernity. Almost all sociologists, certainly in Ireland, seem over-anxious to indicate that they are not in favour of the way things were. This is their entitlement, of course, as citizens and human beings, but it ceases to be benign when it undermines their sociology. It seems to me that, if sociologists are to acquire credibility in the analysis of public matters, they need to painstakingly weight arguments equally on either side. It also seems to me that politics should be applied after the science has seeped into the picture.

Reading through the analysis and case histories in the paper on suicide, I had a growing sense that I was being told a number of things: (1) that suicides arise from the inability of people to cope with aspects of the clash between old and new; (2) that new moralities are being forged, which leave people alienated from existing ones (3) that, whereas we move towards a position whereby the old moralities will be obliterated, virtue, in the interim is to be accorded to those who favour that obliteration and sympathy withheld from those who do not.

It is clear from the tendentious presentation of their research that the authors sought to vindicate a particular ideological viewpoint. One passage, for example, outlined the contrasting responses of young men and young women to the “new alternatives” in respect of “gender”. (All terms which already indicated a particular political perspective.) Young men, we were informed, experience “their traditional role privileges and securities as under threat or circumscribed by the influences of feminism and gender equality in employment”. No evidence was offered for this statement, and no substantiation for the idea that young men today have any expectation of privileges and securities, never mind for how we might know they are conscious of these being “under threat”. There has always been an enormous differentiation between the expectations of men across the social spectrum, and, even if one accepts the feminist description of society in its totality, there was always a majority of men who were infinitely less “privileged” than, let’s say, a minority of women. The suicide figures do not bear out the broader analysis of such changes in any straightforward way.

There was also visible in the paper a clear bias of sympathy in the use of language treatment of young women as against young men. Young women, we were told, “experience the same changes positively, as an expansion of horizons (manifest in their lower suicide rates), but negatively as performance pressures”. Might it not as easily and plausibly be suggested that young men experience “performance pressures” in relation to all kinds of things? The very language in which the issues were set down leant like the Tower of Pisa, and the authors’ preferences in relation to how society was transforming were so clear and predetermined that the subtext read something like this: “Young men are pissed off because women have escaped from the kitchen and are going off in a huff and topping themselves. Well, tough shit boys!”

But the subtextual bias extended beyond feminism. Going through various case histories set out in the paper, I found that sympathy for the victims was accorded by the authors’ on the basis not of any objective assessment of pain, but on the basis of behaviour. To the extent that they behaved in a manner harmonious with the idea that modernity is good, the suicide victims received posthumous approbation; to the extent that their behaviour accorded with the old way of living, they were subtly blamed for this. In one case, a young man who had killed himself was implicitly criticised because he was still living with his parents at the time of his death, and because his parents called the priest, rather than the doctor or ambulance, when they found his body. This was advanced as evidence of his and his family’s traditionalism! In a case involving a female suicide victim, the dead woman received much sympathy because she had been “kicking against the traces of conventional morality”, made her own “choices” and was a “modern woman”. In a third case, a man who felt victimised by his wife’s infidelity received short shrift. There were references to his “rage” and to the face that “he says” his wife had caused shame and hurt.

It seems to me that any objective outsider, on being told that this paper was representative of the attitudes of Irish social scientists towards suicide, would have to conclude that such scientists are only sympathetic to victims in as far as their reasons for killing themselves validate the idea that traditional society is/was oppressive. The idea that modern society might be similarly oppressive was inadmissible. That same outsider, on being told that the bulk of the recent increases in suicide was among young men, would have to conclude that the authors’ view is that such suicides reflect the recalcitrance of young men with regard to the manifest virtues of modernisation, and that the fault resides not with the drift of society but with some intrinsic block in the male psyche in respect of (one presumes) some erosion of male control over women.

The widespread promulgation of such nonsense is why I welcome Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s book as a first step in what will hopefully be a new wave in Irish social science, in which the facts will be examined for themselves rather than what they are useful for. This book will not offer the last word on suicide. Who can say, ultimately, why any man kills himself? But what it can certainly do is draw attention to the evasion of a clear sociological pattern in the suicide figures, year after year. The persistence of the patterns must mean something and it is high time we sought to establish what exactly that meaning might be rather than seeking to manipulate the facts to suit the prevailing orthodoxy.

With the decline in belief in eternal damnation, society’s focus has shifted to easing the burden of pain and guilt on those bereaved by suicide. This is decent and admirable. Less virtuous, however, is the extension of this compassionate evasion to society as a whole. It is right that no-one should take the blame for another’s decision to end his own life, but wrong that society should be enabled to shrug off responsibility for a clear, consistent social pattern established over many years, simply because the facts are inconvenient to its beliefs.

John Waters
June 2007