- Stories of suicide and social justice
R. Srivatsan’s (2016) view of suicide as a historically specific event enfolded with meaning and Clare Shaw’s (2016) thoughtful elucidation of the transformative power of personal stories attest to the complexity and challenge of conducting research into the meanings and functions of narratives of suicide both methodologically and ethically. Because one of the aims of my original article was to bring narrative theories and methods to bear on issues relating to the ethical and political aspects of personal narrative within the practice of suicidology, I hope this will again serve as a useful framework for responding to the commentaries and the specific challenges they present.
Srivatsan’s call for a political view that moves beyond current biomedical or social science perspectives to consider the symbolic dimension of suicide in its complex historicity is significant in two important respects. First, it presents as a way of transcending the ethical tension over the privileging of the narrator or the narrated to address the question of what the discursive response to suicide says about a given community, its structure, and dynamics. Because meaning is not intrinsic to the act of suicide, but results from the social and cultural traditions, symbols, and institutions that enfold it, suicide serves as an important site of social reconstruction (Higonnet, 2000). In this view, suicide survivor narratives are simply one of a number of proliferating accounts that surround suicide that serve certain social functions and that can be studied in their particular contexts. At their broadest level, Srivatsan suggests that suicide survivor narratives can be understood as an emerging form of community discourse striving to develop a coherent voice through which to redress imbalances in power, challenge notions of moral responsibility, and assert suicide attempt survivors’ social value.
Second, it encourages a loosening of modern configurations of normativity and instrumentality that have stifled research and moral discussion on suicide. In contemporary suicidology, the study and prevention of suicide are considered interdependent, making it difficult to think of suicide research in non-instrumental terms. This preoccupation with prevention has impacted our moral thinking. The view of suicide as a symptom of distorted thinking or illness that warrants prevention has marginalized and diminished moral discussion on suicide. The primary moral issues as far as suicidology is concerned are those surrounding the acceptability of individual and institutional interventions (Battin, 1995). Although these discussions are important, there are other equally pressing moral issues. Srivatsan touches on several of these in his commentary, such as the sociopolitical and economic forces that underpin judgments of evidence, as well as the social and medicolegal discrimination of suicide attempt survivors. I am not convinced, however, that [End Page 285] historicizing the study of the discourses around suicide alone is sufficient to meet the ethical task that Srivatsan proposes.
A historical approach enables us to examine prevailing and conflicting narratives of suicide in which moral judgments operate. The rich depiction of experiences and responses is critical to an adequate understanding of any moral issue, especially one as complex as suicide. But one of the limitations of this approach (and one that my own version of narrative ethics shies away from) is how this knowledge gives us ethical guidance. If all we are concerned with is an understanding of ‘what is at stake and for whom’ then there is little room for ethical judgment (Arras, 1997). How, for example, are we to judge such narratives and to make comparative choices between them when they conflict, especially in political situations (Brody, 1997; Eagleton, 1997)? Srivatsan neither elaborates this point, nor asks us to choose.
In exploring the connection between narrative and moral justification in postmodern bioethics, John Arras (1997) claims that the preoccupation with questions of authorship and the privileging of small-scale narratives has resulted in the eclipse of explanation and justification by narrative, and a withdrawal from any concerted effort to achieve coherency in our epistemological and ethical views. The abandonment of faith in Enlightenment ideals of objectivity, rationality, truth, and the ethical preference for the ‘small story’ means that it is no longer possible to speak meaningfully at a global level of justifying...