| October 19, 2010 8:24 pm

Confusion-Keeyna-WoodsNote: The regular programming of this website has been interrupted due to a need to finish the Open Source Writing book.  It has been in production for nearly a year, and is just about finished.   But to keep it from going over a year, it requires a great deal of love and attention.  Once a copy has been sent to the editor and publisher, I intend to pick up where I left off with posts about Open Source culture, important updates to LyX-Outline, and samples from the aforementioned book.

For the past several weeks, I’ve tried to summarize my thoughts and feelings regarding the current debate on the definition of marriage.  Once in a great while, we are forced to consider questions and propositions that can alter the direction of human history.  The basic definition and understanding of marriage is one such time.  There has been a lot said that is profound, inflammatory and divisive.  Often a single article may be all three.

And, even though I’ve picked up the virtual pen many times, I’ve found that I can’t coherently summarize my feelings or opinion.  I believe a number of things, and some of them are quite contradictory to others.  For that reason, I think that I will just keep them to myself.  If you do not completely know your own mind, there is no adequate way to speak it.

With that said, there is one sentiment that I wished to share.

For a subject that is decidedly heterochromatic, there is a ridiculous amount of black and white thinking going on.  Simplistic rumination about a complicated subject is very dangerous.  It lays the roots of conflict that may require centuries to sort out, if it ever is.

Just look at the question of slavery.  After nearly two hundred and fifty years, we’re still trying to deal with the many stupidities and simplistic notions that the founding fathers left us.  Nor do I have much hope that questions of equality will be answered in my lifetime.

But just because stupidity is dangerous doesn’t mean that we aren’t drawn to it. In this most recent debate, there are many examples of the destructive work of simplicity, but one example in particular caught my attention.  Namely, in the way that the suicides of gay teenagers are being placed at the feet of religion and cultural biases.

In this particular slug-fest, there have been accusations, name calling, and threats.  Members of both sides have said that there will be “consequences” for the words and actions of the others. (Which is just a polite way of saying, “I’m going to get you.”)

What there has not been, at least to my knowledge, is any serious acknowledgement of an important point.  Religion, bias and even bullying are not killing American youth.  That isn’t how suicide works.

Suicide is a tremendously complex problem.  It is a manifestation of mental illness, and for that reason, it makes little logical sense.  Good people kill themselves, bad people kill themselves, successful people kill themselves, as do those lost to obscurity.  Trying to understand “Why?” is a dangerous folly founded upon fallacy.

The horrid taunting that many gay teenagers endure certainly contributes to the epidemic , but then, many other things do as well.  This even includes such “trivialities” as news coverage and publicity.  Like murder, prominent coverage of suicides has been known to result in periodic spikes.  In some cases, the coverage of a single suicide may precipitate hundreds of “copy-cats”.  It’s thought that after Marilyn Monroe died, as many as 300 others committed suicide in the same way [1].  For this reason, it is very dangerous to think that if we somehow “solve” the problem of homophobia that gay youth will refrain from blowing their brains out or hanging themselves.  The problem is so much more complex than that.

Trying to point to a single contributor and shouting “Cause!” is like blaming the destruction of African American families on the Civil Rights movement.  There might be a relationship (doubt it), but the question of “cause and effect” is still a long ways from being sorted.

So it is with suicide, religion and cultural bias.  Consider: the levels of mental illness and other destructive behavior associated with homosexuality – major depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide – is elevated amongst all peoples and populations, even in countries such as the Netherlands, which has enjoyed relatively wide acceptance of homosexuality in general [2].  In fact, the gay suicide rate in the Netherlands is very, very high.  I’d even go so far as to say that it is comparable to that of gay men in the United States, even though the overall suicide rate is lower [3].  Hardly a clear case of causality.

(The rate varies wildly between different studies, and gay suicide is not separately tallied in official statistics.  I will, thus, concede that I am comparing apples to oranges.  But I was unable to find any good comparison between gay suicide rates amongst countries.  Neither Google or PubMed were of much help.  So, apples to oranges it is.)

The cynic, pessimist and misanthrope in me says that significantly alleviating the burdens of the haunted or the torture of the tormented might not have any significant effect at all.  Both of my family members who killed themselves this year, for example, were actively undergoing treatment for mental illness.  Ultimately, it made little difference.  They’re still dead.

Nor have public advocacy programs resulted in any real decline in the suicide rate.  Utah, for example, spends millions on counseling and support infrastructure, and our suicide rate is going up, not down.  As I said before, suicide is a manifestation of mental illness, and we don’t understand it.

For that matter, our understanding of mental illness in general is about as complex as 15th century knowledge of the heart.  It’s a tremendously hard nut to crack, and we’re a long ways from understanding.  Suicide is a big complicated mess of contributors, mental illness and susceptibility.  We need to appreciate that.

But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to make the world a better place, or that providing gay youth with a better childhood isn’t important.  Because, frankly, this world is a bitch, as Matthew Gallaway explains in this brilliantly written piece.

Yet, as I read Gallaway’s words, I see no pain or disillusionment that is specific to one group of people.  No one has a monopoly on being ”a ‘broken” human being … oddly incapable of love or friendship or hope or many of the things ‘normal’ people take for granted because we feel soulless and empty as we look back on our younger, popular selves … with nothing but sadness and dismay.”  I’d even say, that for most of us, that description sums up the human condition. And I’m not sure there is a good way to fix the problem.

Which is probably where I should stop.

Okay … maybe one more thing.  Many of the comments regarding suicide can also be applied toward our understanding of sexuality in all its forms: heterosexual, homosexual, transgender and questioning.  To those who say that homosexual attraction is a personal “choice”, I think you need to do some reading.  But to those who claim that it is an “inborn and innate component of identity”, so do you.  In both cases, there is a tremendous gulf between what you think Science says and what evidence is actually available.

And that is where I will definitely stop.  From this point onward, my thinking has little in the form of coherence or cohesion and I don’t even know how I feel.  To try and express it would therefore be futile.


  1. S. Stack, “Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community health 57, no. 4 (2003): 238.
  2. T G Sandfort et al., “Same-sex sexual behavior and psychiatric disorders: findings from the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study (NEMESIS),” Archives of General Psychiatry 58, no. 1 (January 2001): 85-91.
  3. 1. “WHO | Country reports and charts available,” n.d., http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/country_reports/en/index.html.


3 Responses to “Heresy, Sophistry and a Plea for Complexity”

las vegas seo wrote a comment on October 26, 2010

Good post! Can I translate this into French for my site?

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on October 26, 2010

@Las Vegas SEO: Uhm … sure. If you would like. I would kindly request that you link to the original.

Bard wrote a comment on November 10, 2011

Well, I do plan, the next time someone tells me homosexuality is treatable, to ask them if it’s treatable the way marital problems are (in that it’s not always the smart course), or treatable the way a narcotics addiction is (in that you’d damn well better make a stab at it). If they answer the latter, I think citing Alan Turing is quite appropriate, don’t you?

Care to comment?