Cover-Ups and Concern Trolls: Actually, It's About Ethics in Suicide Journalism
Someday #Gamergate will be far enough behind in my rearview mirror that I’ll stop using them as the lede in every piece.
We’re apparently not far enough into 2015 for that yet, though, because the recent kerfuffle over the “ethics” of reporting on teen suicide keeps triggering #GamerGate thoughts in my head.
The problem is—as my ironic headline for this piece indicates—the #GamerGate fiasco has conditioned me, like Pavlov’s dog, to roll my eyes at the very sound of the phrase “ethics in games journalism.” “Ethics” has been ruined as a word for me to a degree that even the Scientologists weren’t able to manage, and they tried their hardest.
The ways in which people disingenuously arguing on the Internet have used “ethics” like a bludgeon vary, and most are barely coherent. But one of the most obnoxious was whenever a woman targeted by Internet harassment or threats of a school shooting, you’d get people sharing an image like this with friendly “advice.”
The advice said that if you were getting threats or harassment, you should quietly take down the evidence and report it to the authorities but not publicize it. Not for the benefit of the harasser, of course, but for your own safety. Publicizing threats, the helpful advisor would sagely intone, merely encourages the harasser by giving them the attention they crave, and encourages copycat harassment from onlookers. Anyone who tries to draw attention to threats instead of quietly burying them is worsening the problem.
This advice sounds superficially reasonable. The advisor would cite reasonable-sounding sources like haltabuse.org and the FBI. The image would get spread around and become part of the general talking points about what “anti-GamerGaters” were doing wrong, to the point where supposedly “neutral” journalists would bring up this “helpful criticism” when interviewing women about the death threats they’d gotten.
The problem, though, is that this advice presumes that death threats are rare and abnormal. That the threats and harassment are being carried out by one single “deranged individual” and that they can be stopped as soon as the professionals step in and locate the one bad actor. That the danger is of somehow putting the idea of harassment and death threats in more people’s heads to create “copycats” where there previously weren’t any.
When we talk about “politicizing” an issue like death threats, the presumption that the problem is a localized, personal problem and that publicizing it makes it political.
But what if we’re in an environment where threats are endemic and constant? Where the force generating those threats is a widespread, self-sustaining, and virulent social movement? When the problem is already political, when the intolerable situation is the status quo?
Then that would be a different situation. The important thing wouldn’t be the impossible, futile task of reporting each and every individual harasser to the authorities like a perverse game of Whack-A-Mole and wait for them to act (which they rarely do). If the problem is a social, cultural problem then the only way to respond to it is likewise social and cultural—which requires a collective, cultural response. Which is impossible unless people talk publicly rather than letting each crime be its own isolated incident.
If this is the case, then telling people to shut up about the problem and wait for the professionals to handle it sounds downright wrongheaded. Disingenuous and destructive, even. Almost like—surprise, surprise—the people helpfully telling you to keep a lid on the bad shit happening to you and the people perpetrating that shit are one and the same.
Why is this on my mind now? Well, thankfully, very few mainstream media outlets, and certainly none that I think of as on the political Left or as feminist allies, are out there sharing GamerGate’s helpful advice to women on the Internet to shut up about getting threats.
But a ton of people I respect have been sharing Sarah Ditum’s article trying to put a lid on the story of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide.
I mean, it’s the same song and dance, step by repetitive step. Starting off by clarifying that of course you care about trans people, of course you think their lives matter, of course you don’t want any harm to come to them. And that’s why we must shut up about Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note, shut up about the details surrounding her suicide, shut up about the “possibly underlying cause” of Alcorn’s suicide being her parents’ rejection of her trans identity—something that her note, her past Reddit correspondence, and her parents’ reactions even now make abundantly clear.
Again, the reasoning sounds, well, reasonable, and is sourced to a respectable organization, the Samaritans. You don’t want to “sensationalize” a suicide in order to inspire “copycat suicides.” You don’t want to intrude on a private moment of grief. You don’t want to “politicize” something personal.
But hang on a bit. That, again, presumes that Leelah Alcorn’s death was an isolated incident. That suicide of transgender young people denied support by their parents is rare, and therefore inspiring new incidents—putting the thought in people’s heads—is the largest danger here. It presumes that there isn’t a massive epidemic of trans suicides already happening. It presupposes that the reasons for Leelah Alcorn’s death are mysterious, individual, and personal to her case and that there isn’t a huge, glaring societal problem that can only be addressed if we as a society take collective action.
There’s nothing to “politicize” here. When eight times as many transgender adults attempt suicide as non-trans people and when eighty times as many end up actually killing themselves, when one trans person is murdered every three days and “gay panic” can successfully be used as a legal defense for straight men murdering trans women, when, on a global scale, the average lifespan of a transgender person is only 23 years...
For trans people, the personal is already pretty fucking political.
Ditum obscures, evades, hell, outright throws cold water on this truth throughout her piece arguing for the takedown of Alcorn’s final words from public view. She decries the narrative of Alcorn being driven to suicide through denial of her trans identity on a “single source”—that source being Alcorn herself, who would know best, a source that has been thoroughly backed up now by external evidence. (For one thing it is public record that the Alcorns did take Leelah to conversion therapy to “cure” her sexual identity, a practice condemned by the APA, known to be deeply psychologically harmful for LGBT people. Leelah’s death has sparked a call for its ban.) She bemoans Leelah’s parents’ status as “villains” and the “harassment” they’re getting from the Internet, even though, contra her claim that they have made no “public statement,” Carla Alcorn has continued to erase her daughter’s identity in public, calling her “him” and “son,” planning to bury her in the clothes of a man and with the name on her headstone that she battled so hard to escape.
It’d be different if I felt like she saw both sides of the argument. Other people have questioned the inevitable dangers of publicizing an emotionally charged story like this, and asked whether the costs will be worth the benefits—the very real benefits that include the stories shared on the #RealLiveTransAdult hashtag, the petition to finally ban conversion therapy, the uptick in visibility of what’s often been the most invisible letter in the LGBT alphabet.
But Ditum doesn’t seem to see these benefits at all. And, surprise surprise, that’s because like the people helpfully telling Anita Sarkeesian “for her own good” not to publicize the shooting threat she got, she doesn’t seem to think visibility for the cause is a benefit in the first place. Because she doesn’t give a shit about the cause.
Here she is in June saying “Trans politics and feminism have never been headed to the same place.” Here she is on Twitter calling trans women “male” and asserting her right to keep them out of women-only spaces. Here she is calling trans women (presumably just the ones who haven’t had surgery) “penised individuals” and, again, declaring her right to exclude them.
Here she is complaining about being called a “TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and calling it a “slur” even though there she is above in black and white arguing for the exclusion of trans women.
And here is trans activist after trans activist calling Ditum out as an enemy pretending to be an ally—and Ditum, a non-trans woman who’s given trans women plenty of reasons to dislike and distrust her, getting a platform to talk over them and tell them she knows what trans teens need better than they do.
We have a term on the Internet for someone who claims to be trying to help you while giving you advice mainly intended to make you shut up and go away. It’s called “concern trolling” and it’s not a good look.
Dave Duerson, an NFL player, killed himself in 2011. He shot himself in the chest—a less certain method of suicide than in the head—in order to preserve his brain, and left a message stating he wanted his brain to be studied for signs of damage caused by his football career.
If we took Ditum’s advice and slavishly followed the Samaritan guidelines, we wouldn’t mention the fact that he shot himself in the chest—that’s providing information about the method of suicide. We wouldn’t drag the NFL into the story—that’s putting the blame for the suicide on a specific cause. We certainly wouldn’t mention that Duerson’s brain was found to have signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and that spurred calls for reform in the NFL—that’s implying that suicide can have positive results in the world.
Who would be served by this course of action? Duerson’s family and friends, vulnerable people who might “copycat” Duerson’s actions? Maybe. The NFL? Definitely.
The Samaritan guidelines are written around the assumption that suicide is a purely irrational act, an act spurred by illness. You don’t want to put the thought of suicide in anyone’s head. Ditum implicitly treats trans people this way—she calls them a group particularly “vulnerable” to thoughts of suicide as though they are defective, damaged, and we have to watch our words around them lest they do something crazy and rash.
But Leelah Alcorn wasn’t just some crazy depressed teenager. Her depression was created by an external force. The sickness in her mind was a reflection of the sickness of her life, a sickness created by her family and her society. Just as Duerson’s depression wasn’t “in his mind” solely but in his skull, a physical damage created by the irresponsible practices of his employer. In both cases suicide wasn’t merely a self-absorbed act of self-destruction—it was an attempt to draw the world’s attention to that external force.
As I’ve said on Twitter, I don’t want any more people to kill themselves. Suicidal ideation is a subject I’m close to and it freaks me out to talk about it and hear about it. But as a cis straight man who’s never lived through and will never live through the kind of constant, relentless denial of my self the way a trans person does, I don’t have the right to blithely say what’s “rational” or “irrational” about choosing to live or die. I don’t know what that’s like any more than I know what it’s like to live through the symptoms of progressive neurodegeneration.
I don’t think Duerson should’ve killed himself. I wish he hadn’t. But I don’t have the right to sit here and judge him and call his act irrational—and to presumptuously remove the one good thing he hoped to come of that act by deciding that I wisely know better than he does that the benefit isn’t worth the cost.
Look, maybe you think that Leelah Alcorn—and trans people like her—are just people suffering from a mental illness that will pass with time and treatment. Maybe you think that trying to “cure” trans people of who they are is a reasonable choice unworthy of condemnation—as Ditum apparently does. Maybe you think shutting up about the problem and letting things go on as they are will cause trans people to eventually “get better” on their own.
Then fine, take Ditum’s advice. Undo that retweet. Unpublish that story. Do as Tumblr has done and scrub her last words off the Internet—erase everything she wanted the world to hear. Let her parents publish an obituary mourning “Joshua” and casually erase the fact that a “Leelah” on the Internet ever existed—something that happens to God knows how many trans suicide victims already, every day.
But maybe you see that it’s not trans people who are the sick ones who have a problem. We are the sick ones who torment trans people every day of their lives. The problem wasn’t inside Leelah Alcorn any more than, to reference Chris Rock, the problem with racism is in black communities or the problem with the Turner marriage was in Tina.
Maybe you agree with me that it’s not about external observers like me or Sarah Ditum sitting in our armchairs and making the decision whether to “encourage” or “discourage” suicide like we’re the sane ones who have to protect the crazy trans people. Maybe we are the problem. Maybe the question isn’t moralizing over whether Alcorn should’ve taken her life but what each and every one of us did to create a society where Alcorn felt that was her last, best option.
If there is in fact a societal problem and we do in fact need to “fix society” as Alcorn desperately pleaded for us to do, then Ditum’s concern over the message this reporting sends to vulnerable trans people is beside the point. They’re not the ones who need a message sent to them. They don’t need to hear the debate over how bad growing up trans in America is and whether or not killing yourself is a valid option when transition seems impossible. They are already infinitely more qualified to have that debate than we are. They already know how bad it is.
We, on the other hand, are the ones who are making it bad, and the ones with the power to change that. We are the ones the message needs to be sent to.
Does the sending of the message “justify” the tragedy that caused it? That question’s above my pay grade. The tragedy of Dave Duerson was horrible and shouldn’t have happened, but publicizing it set things in motion.
Just like no one would argue that the threats Anita Sarkeesian got were a good thing, but the fact that they happened and that they got publicized meant positive change occurred. As was the case with undeniable tragedies like Mike Brown’s death, Eric Garner’s death, the deaths of the victims of the Isla Vista shootings.
Yes, publicizing tragedy gets clicks, gets ad revenue, gets notoriety, and can be done for all the wrong reasons. But it’s also the only way to examine the cause of the tragedy and keep it from happening again.
I wish Leelah Alcorn hadn’t killed herself. But the act of killing herself done, the message was sent, and heard, and things started changing. Until concern trolls like Sarah Ditum came along trying to cover it up again.
Well, they can take their “ethics,” and they can go fuck themselves.