Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Don't glorify suicide

After a busy life of activism and entrepreneurship, and facing possible jail time for downloading academic articles, Aaron Swartz killed himself Friday.  They're calling him a martyr.

But let's remember that the Department of Justice didn't kill him.  MIT didn't kill him.  His death was not some kind of inevitable consequence of their choice to prosecute.  He hanged himself.

My grandfather committed suicide about 40 years ago.   I never met the man, but I saw the repercussions his last act had on his wife and children.  The bitterness.  The gap, where there should have been a grandpa and wasn't.  I grew up understanding that there was nothing glamorous about suicide.

In the grip of depression, that didn't stop me from considering it at times.  I have been where Aaron was when he wrote, “Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you.”  But even in that haze, I couldn't ignore what my death would do to my family.  On the day I got married I promised to be a loving and faithful wife, and that meant not leaving Jeff.

And things got better, as I fully expect they would have for Aaron.  For a man who had accomplished so much by age 26, he undoubtedly had more gifts to give the world. Yes, his death drew attention to his cause, which may have been part of his intention.  But I seriously doubt that cutting things off now was the best way to further digital freedom.

I think there are cases where a person really can expect their life to be net negative, and death is their best option. But that doesn't seem to have been the case here.  People are talking about the 35 years he faced like it was a sure thing, but it was likely he'd have gotten a light sentence.  And a jail sentence, as Martin Luther King could have told you, does not have to ruin your life or your cause.

I don't mean to minimize the pain Aaron was in, which I'm sure surpassed anything I've experienced. But I don't think it justifies his action.  It is deeply wrong to hang yourself where your girlfriend will find your body  she will never be the same.  You don't do that to someone who loves you.  And it was wrong to abandon his cause when he had so much to give.

Suicide has a situational aspect and a psychological/biological aspect, but also a cultural aspect.  And we need to think about what we want as a culture.

Our reaction to Aaron's death informs every young hacker's idea of what will happen to their reputation if they follow in his footsteps.  If we really don't want to lose brilliant young minds, we can't glamorize death.

1 comment:

Erica said...

thank you for such a thoughtful article on this timely topic.