The Death Hour

One vaguely interesting story on the TV news: 19 year old Justin Biggs suicided on live webcam.

The interesting thing is not that a teenager killed themselves - strangers do that every day and only their loved ones care, so it's simply hypocritical for people uninvolved to get upset over this one case.

Nor that he did it publicly - jumpers from bridges and buildings do the same thing to give their suicide-gesture some meaning. The interesting thing is the tone of the reportage and consequent net chatter.

The reporter took on the traditional sanctimonious tone, claiming that no one watching did anything to stop him, while some encouraged him, made jokes or dismissed the whole thing as a hoax.

Take a step back for a moment and think. Is it actually true that no one tried to dissuade him?

Very unlikely - the journalist is almost certainly lying to make the story more sensational. In other words, they're doing their job. It also allows the news viewers to make clucking noises about "people today" - something they love doing.

If you tuned in and saw Bigg's cast, would you suspect it was a hoax, a prank or a publicity stunt? Yes, of course you would, unless you were incredibly naive. And if some viewers decided it was a hoax, wouldn't they mock it? Some certainly would - stunts and viral marketing are so self-important they deserve mockery.

As for those who gave encouragement, some will have been mocking, some saying they supported his right to self-determination, and some will be the usual crowd who gather and shout "Jump!" whenever someone threatens to throw themselves off a skyscraper. Unpleasant maybe, but hardly a new phenomenon - and obviously irrelevant to the internet, no matter what forced link the reporter tries to suggest.

You may ask: What would I do if someone on a webcam I was watching announced they were going to kill themselves...and then seemed to do it.

I can give you an answer, because that's exactly what happened to me, several years ago.

A guy of about 18 (I forget his name if I ever knew it) typed that he was so fed up being gay and bullied that he was going to cut his wrists and bleed to death live on cam.

I thought instantly that he was just trying to get attention, but just in case I was wrong, tried to talk him out of it. No one else was watching or contributing, just me and him.

He must have spent half an hour listing his troubles - from "my parents hate me" and "I'm too stupid to finish school" to "I'll never get a boyfriend because I've got a fat arse" and "I'm ugly".

I'm not much good at pep talks, so I tried honesty - he was obviously smart, capable, and indeed cute. But he was having none of it, and went to get a large carving knife, which he waved angrily at the camera before bending double and appearing to hack at both wrists.

It was at this point I because absolutely certain that it was a sham. The cuts were shallow and horizontal across the heels of his palms, not deep and vertical as would been needed to cause life-threatening bleeding. More importantly, the blood was suspiciously red...and the tube of tomato ketchup in the background had gone missing.

However, just in case my oh-so-cynical nature was distorting my judgement, I played along, notching up my positively spun honesty.

He stopped suddenly, told me he was an acting major, explained that he just wanted to test how good his acting was, apologised for upsetting me...and logged off.

Though he did say the bit about hating his fat arse was true.

The right to show your face entails the right to hide it, the right to forgive entails the right to hold a grudge, and the right to go on living entails the right to end your life - provided you're in a fit state to make the decision.

This to me seems uncomplicated and obvious, but the constantly repeated assertion that Justin Biggs was "manic-depressive" or "disturbed" seems to cut through the principle by showing he wasn't in any fit rational state.

However, these labels obscure rather than clarify the issue. "Disturbed" can mean anything from "traumatised by longterm abuse" or "in a desperate situation" to "having a funny five minutes" or "deeply eccentric".

"Manic-depressive" has become a label thrown about for anyone who has mood swings (ie. everyone) or strong emotions (ie. anyone). If it ever meant anything, in popular usage it's now joined "Social Anxiety Disorder", "SAD", "Asperger's Syndrome" and "Multiple Personalities" on the shelf of medical sounding conditions that could apply to the entire human species.

I have absolutely no idea why this man decided to exercise his right to kill himself. But tutting over the reactions of onlookers while salaciously wallowing in the details yourself is not a helpful response. And neither is trying to increase government censorship of the internet in the guise of pretending to protect the helpless.

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