Eilis O'Hanlon: Not naming the terrible realities of life won't keep us any safer
We say euphemisms are a kindness to others, but it's really ourselves we're trying to protect.
According to reports, Paul O'Brien was "found dead". He "died tragically". Gardai are "not looking for anyone else in connection with the incident". There were "no suspicious circumstances". Reading between the lines, it seemed obvious that what we were dealing with here was a case of suicide.
If that is so, why not just say it? There may be sound reasons for not being more explicit. Causes of death are decided by coroners, not journalists. His family may also have wished for privacy. They have, after all, suffered enough. O'Brien's 15-year-old daughter Lynsey died in 2006 after falling from a cruise ship on a family holiday after being served 11 alcoholic drinks in less than an hour. Her father was heartbroken, campaigned tirelessly for better cruise ship safety, and published a book. Why not leave them alone at such an awful time to grieve?
In this instance, there can surely be no argument with that. The underlying problem is the coyness with which we increasingly talk about suicide in general. Endeavouring to be as sensitive as possible, we have turned suicide, alone amongst other violent and unexpected ways of death, into something that is whispered about, rather than discussed openly. It almost seems to resurrect the ancient idea that there's something shameful about suicide, which only adds to the pain of survivors or grieving families rather than ameliorating it.
Of course, it's all done with the best intentions. There's a whole set of guidelines now in place about how to report suicide. It's acceptable, according to the Samaritans, to say that someone "died by suicide", but not that a "successful" or "unsuccessful" suicide attempt was made. You're not supposed to refer to the dead person as a "victim". Above all, there is one cardinal sin. Journalists must not say that the dead person "committed suicide", because the current thinking is that this is equivalent to saying they have done something wrong. Crimes are "committed".
Any reporter who makes the mistake of saying that an individual has "committed suicide", even if they do so innocently and with absolutely no intention of ascribing blame, will quickly be chided by those who see compassion as a competitive sport.
There is, though, a glaring contradiction in this rule. If we accept that those who take their own lives have done nothing wrong, then why the reluctance to describe events as they
happened rather than couching them in prissy doublespeak? Plain speaking is always better than euphemism. Euphemisms are a way of not thinking clearly, or not thinking at all. George Orwell understood that well enough. Euphemisms are also always about yourself. We don't speak plainly because we don't want to use words that make us uncomfortable, not because we're thinking about the other person. Hence the reluctance to use the word cancer, because it scares us, not out of sensitivity to anyone who is suffering from the disease.
We use words like "collateral damage", rather than confronting the reality of war. The unemployed have became "job seekers". Laying off workers is "rationalisation". We say "passed away" when what we mean is that someone died. "The Troubles" and "Emergency", meanwhile, vie for the title of biggest Irish euphemism. There's a superstition at work under the apparent cleansing of language, a belief that naming terrible things makes them more real.
The irony is that language is always evolving anyway. Psychologist Steven Pinker has coined the term "euphemism treadmill" to describe this process.
Terms which are deemed offensive are replaced by less offensive ones which in turn then come to be seen as offensive and have to be replaced by new terms, and so the process begins again. We keep having to find new euphemisms until presumably it all comes full circle and we're right back where we started. Who's to say that "died by suicide" or "took his own life" won't be targeted in years to come by those desperate for congratulation for being more compassionate than their fellow human beings?
Sometimes all it takes for particular terms to become offensive is for people to be told enough times that they are offensive. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The desire of some people to be affronted by what they're hearing is so great that they won't allow any words to finally settle the problem. They'll just find some fresh use of language by which to be deliciously offended.
Again, there's no doubt that the sensitivity police mean well. It's just that much of their advice makes no sense or is contradictory. The Samaritans advise, for example, that newspaper reports of suicide should not give details of how someone died, or the method used, as this may lead to copycat behaviour. Then they warn that the horrible realities of suicide shouldn't be glossed over – for example, that characters who try to take their own life in a soap opera should not be shown afterwards to have quickly and fully recovered, because suicide attempts have lasting psychological and physical effects. Overdoses can cause serious liver damage even in those who survive the attempt. How can the reality of suicide be properly addressed if we tiptoe around the specifics of how and why and who and where and when?
The same applies when it comes to talking about the effect that suicide can have on surviving family members. Families can be utterly destroyed by guilt. We have a tendency to not dwell on these things, because it seems insensitive to someone who's died to dwell on the mess they left behind, but isn't that just glossing over the reality of suicide too? The Samaritans even say you shouldn't disclose the contents of suicide notes in case this romanticises the act. That sounds awfully like a silencing of the dead. They had something to say, even if we don't like what they were saying. Isn't part of respecting the dead about letting them speak for themselves? Even if the only message they leave is their actual death, not reporting it as it happened is just another way of brushing over inconvenient facts.
The issues are certainly complicated, but then plenty of issues are. The best solution in all cases is to walk straight towards them rather than running away; to speak plainly rather than hiding behind euphemisms. Because that was another thing Orwell recognised. Language is always political, and euphemisms are always a sign of bad politics.