Suicide

Sep 14, 2017 in Psychology

In ancient days, suicide was considered both as an abomination and a legal practice depending on which community you came from. In Greece, it was opposed but was allowed for two exceptions; one could commit suicide if the state ordered it or if he was in miserable pain due to an incurable disease, he was compelled to commit suicide. In other communities, people committed suicide for various reasons including the desire to avoid the misery that comes with aging, the preference for death to dishonor, and personal reasons such as sudden loss of something important in one’s life. From a personal point of view, persons killing themselves sometimes view suicide as sign of brevity of taking or not taking a certain challenge or issue, to others it is an act of selfishness since the individual does not consider how it impacts on those around them, while to others, it is sometimes an act to show strong emotions such as love and hatred towards certain individuals in their lives, (Giddens, 2006).

Besides marriage, killing oneself is the hardest decision a human being ever makes. Unlike marriage, you don’t live with the decision but your life ends with it. It is hard to believe that there could be a reason on earth that is so important to die for! Why will an individual, especially a warrior who is believed to be extremely brave, take his/her life? In my opinion, suicide is an individual’s long-term solution to short term social problems.

Suicide is a known to occur in the society and has been with us for as long as the human race has existed. A renowned scientist and psychologist, Durkheim, set out to investigate the social causes of this phenomenon, support it with scientific research and present it in a book. According to him, individuals who commit suicide were usually forced to do so not by their own will or wanting. Most scientists and sociologists at the time of Durkheim thought that suicide was an act of the individual. Durkheim did a research on the probable causes of suicide and concluded that, though the reasons for suicide are varied over different places, the rates of suicide remain relatively stable over a reasonable period of time in a particular society. His theory attaches suicide to social factors; the conflicts on the society, the disharmony and the beliefs in the society act as a force on individual’s decision to take their own lives. Suicide is caused by social factors that are inculcated in the lives of individuals that drive them to commit suicide, contrary to the beliefs of doctors and other scientists that it’s the individual’s psychology that drove them to suicide. Individuals believed that they presented a solution these social conflicts if they committed suicide, (Garner, 2010)  

Through the entire work of Durkheim, social disintegrations and disunity are emphasized as the causes of suicide. Durkheim categorized suicide according to its sources/causes. One of the categories is egoistic suicide which was caused by the self-centered nature of a person’s feelings. When an individual becomes secluded from the rest of the people in the society or feels that he is being ignored and lacks a place in the general public, he finds reason enough to take his life. Individuals can commit suicide when their relationship with groups of people or the society in general is very close. The individual is over integrated into the society and therefore feels obligated to honor or reciprocate by killing themselves. Here, the society is like a force that impacts heavily on the individual. The individual is forced to do what is right in the eyes of the society and feels that this force is larger than him. This was largely practiced in Japan. Individuals also committed suicide due to lack of stability in the society. It results from sudden situations such as getting fired, falling bankrupt or losing a loved one, (Emile Durkheim, 1951).

In as much as the work of Durkheim has greatly contributed to the study of the causes of suicide and their effects in society, his research was one sided. Durkheim emphasized on society and its role on individuals as the main cause that drives people to commit suicide. According to him, not even strong personal factors would lead someone to commit suicide, only on social grounds. This approach sidelined the other numerous factors which could contribute to a person’s decision to take their lives. His disregard for these factors portrays his theory as defective and therefore not reliable to conclude entirely on why individuals took their lives. I am going to demonstrate the work of Durkheim using three illustrations; hara-kiri, kamikaze and the movie, ‘The Last Samurai’.

Suicide continues to occur even in today’s societies. One of the most documented cases of suicide is the hara-kiri. This is a ritualized form of suicide practiced in Japan. Even today, hara-kiri is still practiced in Japan though it is rare. As early as the 12th century, samurai warriors in Japan used to commit suicide as a cultural act. When a samurai warrior has lost in a battle, he could stab himself in the belly with his sword and die. This ensured he avoided being captured and tortured by his enemies. Dying from a bleeding wound in the belly or suffocating due to a throat wound is a painful and miserable death. The samurai warriors believed that dying this way demonstrated a very strong psychological courage, which they considered as a way of winning back a certain degree of honor after a defeat. This effectively covered the shame the warrior felt in backing away from a fight as well as give him chance to start all over again in the new life. Hara-kiri is a symbol in Japan for all samurai warriors and still remains the most honored thing to do in the Japanese history. According to Durkheim, this is altruistic suicide. It occurs due the close relationship an individual has towards his colleagues as well as the society. The importance of hara-kiri was so referred that it was honorable to die by it. It was viewed as a win and not a defeat. In later years, hara-kiri was sometimes committed by Japanese officials for various reasons. Some officials did this to protest a decision from their officials or as a form of paying their last respects to their departed superiors. For instance, in 1912, the leading general killed himself as a means of paying his last respects to the Mejii emperor who had just died. Hara-kiri is a means of drawing attention and showing willingness to die as a sacrifice of oneself for a greater good, (Scott, 2005).

During the 15th century, the rulers in Japan used hara-kiri as a form of punishment. The emperors could send a dagger to the individual to be killed. With no choice, the individual had to kill himself but was consoled by the fact that dying by the sword was more honorable. It was preferred to commit hara-kiri instead of ordinary execution. In some cases, a friend to the victim often chopped off the head immediately after the victim stabbed himself to prevent him from experiencing the miserable painful death. An example of this happened in 1970 when Yukio Mishima, a famous novelist, was assisted by a colleague when he killed himself. This practice reigned in Japan for years with the number of obligatory hara-kiri rising to about 1,500 each year between 1868 and 1873. It was later abolished by the emperors leading to a decrease in the number of cases involving voluntary hara-kiri. In World War II, numerous Japanese soldiers took their lives in the ceremonial hara-kiri to prevent their enemies from taking them captive as well as torture. The allied forces could sometimes kill and take away the heads of Japanese soldiers, especially those who were leaders in the war, as proof of their downfall, a thing that the Japanese troops did not want at all. They therefore instructed there juniors to bury their heads in hidden places after they have committed hara-kiri. This not only ensured that the leaders died honorable in the line of duty but also denied their captors the opportunity of torturing them for information that could compromise their country’s chances in the war. Though most of the soldiers did not die out of their own personal choices, the pressure to save face in front of a likely defeat as well as the belief of a new start in another life forced them to, (Dublin, 2001)

The social live in Japan is considered the main factor leading to the many cases of suicides. The people who lived in the country do not believe in religious outfits such as Christianity or Islam. While those who practice religion view suicide as a sin and hence does not tolerate it, the Japanese are indifferent to life and death through suicide. In fact, to them, it is an honor to take one’s life. It is an old belief in Japan that a person is reincarnated once he/she dies, so suicide is a ticket to a new life with an opportunity to start afresh and avoid whatever reason that led to the person committing suicide. Such social practices as belief in religion and other myths or lack of them is the basis on which Durkheim founded his theory on suicide, Emile (Durkheim 1951).

Besides hara-kiri, the Japanese practiced ‘kamikaze’ attacks on enemies in World War II. ‘kamikaze’ literally means ‘air strikes’ in Japanese. This is a form of strategy that the Japanese used to try and win the war by using specially trained pilots who staged suicidal attacks by flying their planes directly into ships of the enemies. The pilots sacrificed their lives in the attacks but helped in defeating the enemies by killing scores of them as well as spoiling their vessels. Just like hara-kiri was a belief strongly held by the original samurai warriors in Japan, kamikaze was also viewed as a brave way to die for the homeland. The pilots believed that it was an honor to die for the country as well as their emperor. Though not all who volunteered did so out of their high regard of the greater cause, the idea behind the strategy was based on the country’s culture and belief that one who died out of bravery died honorably. This is social bearing on the actions of an individual is reflected to a large extent by Durkheim in his work on suicide.

In the movie, "The Last Samurai", the reason for death is more emphasized than who wins in the scenes. It features characters from different cultural and social backgrounds with values that bind them despite the different backgrounds. One of the characters, Katsumoto, is portrayed as a brave samurai warrior who had participated in the Civil War. Nathan Algren is a war hero hired by the emperor to help in modernizing the Japanese army. Katsumoto leads the samurai warriors in rebelling against this move but pledges his loyalty to the emperor in accordance with the tradition by sacrificing his live at the request of the emperor. The movie ends with the characters expressing a great degree of honor, friendship with each other, and a fulfillment on their various duties, (Adams, 2001)

They all display the behaviors which will be expected by the society in general. More importantly, Katsumoto displays the highest degree of honor when he takes his life in a bid to protest the westernization of Japan as proposed by the emperor. As mentioned early, the society in which individuals are bred shapes their thinking and decision making capacity. Durkheim’s theory identifies the forces in the society as having a greater impact on the individuals’ actions more than his personal self. This is perhaps the reason why Katsumoto decides to take his life since the samurai tradition dictates that in the face of defeat, one is supposed to opt for suicide to avoid capture and torture.

In conclusion, the three illustrations used above show that individuals who took their lives did so because of the social pressures they experienced. They die believing that they have left behind a society that is better off because their dying presented a way out of a particular problem. Although not all who commit suicide do so on social grounds, most are pushed by the very situation in their societies. Durkheim’s work, although one sided, is an enormous contribution to the study of the reasons behind suicide since his emphasis on social reasons does actually play a significant role in suicide cases, (Gibbs, 2001).

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