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Beyond question

John Roskam, director of the economic rationalist think thank that some critics fear is almost directing government policy, got into trouble on ABC radio recently when he said American comic Robin Williams was selfish for committing suicide.

There was an instant outcry of condemnation: how dare he condemn someone so desperate; this was a tragedy pure and simple – to describe it any other way was offensive.

Roskam, whose role leading the Institute of Public Affairs earns him a regular Friday slot with host Jon Faine in Melbourne, is a combative, confident man not given to backward steps. But this time,  he backed down. Unable to appear the next week, he wrote an apology that was read in part on air, acknowledging that he had been insensitive and should not have made his remarks.

The question this controversy raised for me is not whether Roskam was right or wrong, though I share his view, but this:  when did we become so one-dimensional in our thinking that only one lesson could be drawn from Williams’ death, only one response allowed?

Why is there so little room for nuance in these public debates, which tend to polarise into either/or, a binary equation that leaves no room for both/and, for shades of colour.

In Robin Williams’ case, surely the latter is true. Yes, his death was a tragedy, and of course it is awful that he felt so hopeless that suicide seemed his only option. But also, yes, it was selfish. It is hard to imagine a more decisive act of self-will regardless of the consequences for others than to take a life.

To acknowledge that suicide is selfish does not diminish the tragedy or blind us to the victim’s pain. It does not remove the possibility of compassion or empathy for the plight that leads people to such choices.

The basis of the outcry seems to be that people who call Williams selfish must necessarily be deficient in sympathy or insight. These people cannot understand the hideous despair mental illness can cause sufferers, such that they actually believe to end their own lives will help loved ones. How can people like Roskam be so judgmental, his critics wonder.

It seems to me that to deny that suicide is selfish is to deny the secondary victims, those who love the perpetrator, who are usually left asking themselves how they failed him or her, what more they could have done.

This is but one instance of a worrying development whereby moral dissent is being howled down.  Socially approved paradigms seem to be increasingly repressive. We shout into an echo chamber in which we hear only our own views. The sound-bite is not built for nuance.

Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously summed up his attitude: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m not sure I’d stake my life on John Roskam’s freedom of expression, but I hate the way he was pilloried. 

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