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Legislating kindness? It's insane

Who is responsible for suicide? When a human being self-harms, who is to blame? Can anyone but the dead shoulder ownership of their passing? Or shall we elect instead to force, under pain of imprisonment and lifelong penalty, a climate of emotional extortion? When every citizen of our nation lives in fear of his neighbor’s upset, who do we then punish for the fear and loathing we enshrine as law?

These are not rhetorical questions. This is not a theoretical debate. A New York state senator, Jeffrey Klein, wants to make it a felony to bully someone. He has introduced legislation to expand the definition of manslaughter in New York to include “bullycide.” Should that law pass, if you “bully” or “cyberbully” someone in New York state and they then commit suicide, you would be guilty of manslaughter.

As CBS reported, the proposed change to New York law “comes after the death of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer … a week ago Sunday. Police said Rodemeyer was driven to commit suicide after high school bullies teased him about his sexuality.”

Rodemeyer’s suicide is the latest in a highly publicized string of deaths involving young people who were teased or bullied. Last year, Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University, killed himself after a sexual encounter he had in his dorm was broadcast to other students without his knowledge. He was not alone; a 15-year-old girl in Massachusetts killed herself in January 2010 after being harassed by text message and on the social networking site Facebook. The year before that, a Missouri mom who “cyberbullied” her daughter’s 13-year-old rival (by impersonating a boy to trick and then humiliate the girl) was convicted of several misdemeanor criminal charges relating to misuse of computers. That 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, committed suicide in 2006. Children as young as 9 years old have killed themselves, presumably because the pressure of their social environment was too much for them.

“Bullycide,” already a trending term on Twitter, is the term coined for a suicide inspired by social harassment. There are now books and even entire organizations devoted to combating it. Whether in person or, as is proving increasingly prevalent, through technology (from wireless phones to social media specifically and the Web in general), such bullying “in schools and workplaces” leads to suicides “around the world.” As the site Overcome Bullying asserts:

The bullying/suicide connection has been demonstrated time and again. The consequences of bullying can be lethal. Bullying is directly implicated in child and teenage suicide. Addressing the issue of bullying at school or even after school hours through stalking or cyberbullying (Web bullying) is an essential component of teen suicide prevention.

The desire to prevent suicide, especially among young people, is understandable. The efforts of organizations devoted to this purpose are largely laudable. Suicide is a tragedy, the application of a permanent solution to what are, in most cases, only temporary problems. It is a bell you cannot unring; it is the most drastic and most selfish of all ill-conceived acts. To take your life is to damn yourself, if not spiritually, then in the eyes of your family and your friends, who will forever suffer your absence while bearing the psychological poverty of your choice.

Despite these realities, a monstrous injustice occurs when attempts to “address the issue of bullying” become the establishment of thoughtcrime. To take your fellow citizens hostage by pointing at them the weapon of your hurt feelings is to place them in an untenable situation. Sen. Klein’s law would remove from individuals responsibility for their actions – in this case, the self-assassination that is suicide – and transfer guilt for that action to potentially countless others who simply made the victim feel bad.

Such a law would hold guilty, for a crime akin to murder, one individual who has taken no physical action against the other. In other words, if you hurt my feelings and I hang myself, jump in front of a train, or blow my brains out, I didn’t kill me; YOU killed me.

This is insane.

Overt acts of impersonation or invasion of privacy are clearly crimes – but emotions are neither tools of cognition nor objective, reproducible indicators of the inputs brought to bear on them. Different people have different strengths; different personalities react with varying degrees of resilience to stressors, including peer pressure, harassment, threats and other forms of adversity.

You cannot legislate kindness. You cannot construct, bureaucratically, a world in which no one ever feels bad, ever. You cannot hold a nation hostage to the emotions of any individual or group of individuals, for only those individuals have any control over their mental and emotional states.

To put that another way, life is hard. It is, as the saying goes, nasty, brutish and short – and many of us experience feelings of depression, isolation and alienation. Many young people are picked on, harassed and humiliated throughout their preteen and teenage years, and many of them want very much, deep down, to die (or to kill) to make the pain stop.

Each and every one of those people is responsible for his and her own choices. We can no more divorce them from benefit and penalty for their good deeds and their crimes than we can blame their suicides on external forces. The law, at best, may mandate toleration. This simply constrains your neighbors physically, forbidding actions taken against you that would violate your natural rights. The law cannot and should not silence those citizens, even if they dislike you, and it absolutely cannot force them to affirm and validate you.

Legislating “bullycide” is nothing less than emotional blackmail. In a free society, citizens have the right to dislike, disdain and even disparage their fellow citizens – within established legal boundaries of libel, slander and defamation. Those insulted have a concomitant responsibility to deal with life’s psychological adversity using the social and legal recourses available. If you choose to end your life instead of coping with it, no one is to blame for your decision but you.