“Incitement to Suicide” is More Widespread than People Think

by Margaret Morganroth Gullette
Incitement, Critical Gerontology, Ending Ageism, Gullette,

How does incitement work when the target is not an adolescent, but old people?

       Press attention was recently riveted on a teenage girl who was convicted for taunting her deeply depressed boyfriend into committing suicide. Michelle Carter, defended as being depressed herself, texted Conrad Roy III to encourage him to go ahead with his decision when he wavered, and he did commit suicide. Her text messages were the evidence. Only words. The judge ruled that “free speech” does not include incitement to suicide, which is a crime– in Carter’s case, “involuntary manslaughter.” What the public does not realize is that incitements to die get published in major media, in an oh-so-reasonable tone of voice, not by teenagers but by important writers, and with total impunity, when the targets are old people.

Dr. Ezekiel Eman­uel, once chief of clinical bioethics at NIH, writes at length in a much-cited Atlantic essay about why he “hopes” to die by seventy-five. Isn’t that a peculiar choice of age? But then, when would choosing a particular age to die, in advance, not be peculiar? (Full disclosure: I am just over 75.)  In fact, Emanuel disparages his own father, who, since his heart bypass at 77, has become “slug­gish.” Unfilial Ezekiel lays down the law about how “we want to be remembered”.

We wish our children to remember us in our prime. Active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving. Not stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive, constantly asking ‘What did she say?’ We want to be remembered as independent, not experienced as burdens.

The author assumes that our children will fail to remember us kindly if we live past our prime. If I may be allowed a personal note, this is not my experience. I have endearing memories of my mother at every age, including in her nineties, when she continued to make loving and memorable remarks despite having some lost some memories and executive abilities. I copied some of her sayings, and I quote her verbatim in Ending Ageism.

Wishing that our parents die young enough to be remembered rightly seems rather self-centered to me. Emanuel sets a high threshold for others who prefer to go on living: not just absence of disability, but activity, animation! Add cognitive intactness: Who would be so selfish as to inflict their reduced selfhood on their offspring?

Emanuel knows that his father feels happy. A retired doctor, he lives at home with his wife.  Yet this son opines that his father is barely living: “as my father demonstrates, the contemporary dying process has been elongated.”

Dr. Emanuel senior may subscribe to the Atlantic and may have read this censure of his desire to live. His son’s article implies that the bypass was the wrong choice—not only for his father, but for anyone over a certain age who is considering treatment.

The son writes, “we want. . . not [to be] experienced as burdens.”  A “we” implies a “they.” “They” are older people with heart bypasses, or all elderly disabled people, criticized for not having chosen to let themselves die when they had a choice of getting a treatment or not.

I am arguing that this public, published argument, and others like it, be treated as hate speech. Contemporary circumstances now require us, first of all, to expand our current definition—beyond racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ethnic and religious malice—to speech that devalues old people to the point of wishing we would want to die young.

Do hate-speakers assume old people aren’t lis­tening? Believe me, I listen.

In a surprising move, the Gerontological Society of America made Ezekiel Emanuel their keynote speaker at the 2015 national meeting, when the theme was, even more ironically in this context, “Aging as a Lifelong Process.” Amazing. It isn’t a lifelong process for Emanuel, who says that the end years in our day have become an “elongated” “dying process.” What were those institutional heads thinking? I ask, who would invite Donald Trump to speak to the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies?

*  *  *

Unfortunately, other major publications also accept articles that treat older parents, and by extension, old people, as costly burdens. Time Magazine, for example: there Joe Klein complained because his mother’s heart intervention cost so much, although it gave her another decade of life. Money—which is not his money—seems to matter more than his mother’s life.

Such bitter, painful articles get a pass because the targets are old people, not teenagers “with all their lives ahead of them.” Many articles repeat how expensive old people are to treat, and how bad that they choose “over-treatment,” when they might just choose to go quietly and cheaply. No suicide has been connected to all these articles, nor is likely to be. When elders commit suicide, depression is blamed, not the demeaning language which may contribute to creating depression.

So, should such articles count as “incitements to suicide” to older people, or to all people who are sick or frail or have some cognitive impairment? Or to women, the majority of the very old?

Not legally. But morally, they constitute incitements to die. The people who shout “Jump, jump” to a person hesitating to throw himself off a bridge are also guilty of incitement to die.

How does age-related incitement operate?  Ageist hate speech may impair the pleasure that old people take in life, even when they are very ill, even when they are dying. It may make some hesitate to get a life-saving procedure or a cancer treatment. It is a hint that there is a duty to die. Voices that disparage the elderly, or make old age seem dreadful are, I believe, the calm, unhysterical, normalized, media-accepted equivalent of “Jump, jump.”

* * * *

Your adult children may be delightful, friendly, loving people—I know many such, including my own. But some adult children absorb from American ageism care­less jokiness toward their parents, or impatience, rudeness, indifference, or feigned interest. Perhaps they inhale the fear of potential frailty, disease, or difficult care-giving. Dr. Stephen Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook, noting that “Honor thy father and mother” comes first among the social precepts in the Decalogue, summarizes a chilling trend: “The demographic transition to an aging society has put more pressure on this Commandment than any other.” We may not want “honor,” but we do want the adequate contemporary equivalent in human relations.

If adult children can speak, or think, or write otherwise, it is time to note that ageist hate speech is a pattern in American society. Aversion to longevity in the Age of Longevity is part of peak-and-decline ideology, which visualizes life as a short upward progress that inevitably collapses into unwanted old age.

This decline narrative has become internalized as a social “script” that can cause interpersonal irritation, indifference, disdain, even shunning. Even when not a direct incitement to refuse treatment, it represents old age in harshly negative terms that affect everyone exposed to them. You can hear old age disparaged whether you are growing old or only hearing what is said about old age to come. You can learn to fear aging at thirty.

Ageism, as some experts tell us, governs institutional, cultural, economic, and political practices, with dangerous consequences. Middle ageism threatens working life in Hollywood (as celebrities like Madonna now tell us), in Silicon Valley (people over 35), in universities (older people with tenure, in the rush to adjunctification) in businesses. (A Google Alert for “ageism” brings up a weekly digest of shocked and alarming complaints.) Added to the burden of being considered public “burdens” is the metaphor of “zombies”: Attached to old people with cognitive impairments, it also, as fear of Alzheimer’s grows, gets extended to cover all people aging into old age. Ageism threatens medical abandonment, whenever doctors and surgeons accept, perhaps unconsciously, that people over a certain age do not want to live, or perhaps ought not survive.

Ageist budget cuts actively injure the old. The President of the United States does not seem to care that his budget cuts, if passed, would harm the poorest and sickest old on Medicaid, or starve people who rely on Meals on Wheels. Ageism in both speech and practices may throw old people into despair or kill them. Has a President, has Congress, no duty to protect?

* * * *

Sometimes, a news item—here, a crime story–opens our eyes to overlooked aspects of human behaviour, history and culture.

Until quite recently, “ageism” was not a keyword that gerontology used much, despite the fact that Dr. Robert Butler had invented it in 1969. Now, age critics are finally expanding the concept of “ageism” so that it includes the vast network of communications that influences attitudes and familial and social relations. Recently, Susan Pickard published the first book using the title Age Studies, and Ashton Applewhite published A Manifesto Against Ageism, under the title This Chair Rocks. In Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, my current book, I argue that “shooting” old people can include wishing them dead, or making them wish they themselves were dead. This book tries to link micro effects—“just words”– to public policy, and to macro causes like capitalist demotions and neoliberal scarcity discourse. It ends with a two-page Declaration of Grievances, which, like prior declarations of independence (1776) and sentiments (1848), consolidates the grave reasons we need an anti-ageist revolution, by all ages.

It is time to treat hate speech against older people and old age as another vicious prejudice, like racism or sexism, to be ashamed of if you practice it, and to censure when others do. The duty to protect should embrace not only our parents—that should go without saying–but strangers who happen to be old.

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peg cruikshank August 5, 2017 - 9:44 pm

an eye-opening, consciousness-raising post. I salute Margaret Gullette for her tough-minded thought.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette August 8, 2017 - 4:32 pm

Thanks to Peg.

Her writing here reminds me to add to the blog that feminists (including Cruikshank in Learning To Be Old: Gender, Culture, and Aging) were naming the systemic enemies and the careless indifferent ones, and building theory in those relatively inactive years after Bob Butler incited us by naming and defining ageism. Cynthia Rich and Barbara MacDonald published Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism, which early on challenged feminists to fear and ignore old women less and do more on behalf of their own futures. And Shulamit Reinharz invented the term “ageism consciousness,” which I instantly latched onto.

Mary Butler August 8, 2017 - 7:43 pm

Margaret, what an eloquent expression of such an important topic. I hear, see and experience such rude and careless words and behaviors, unfortunately not just by the public but also by physicians and caregivers who should know a lot better.

I am a volunteer for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and will see that your article gets to our medical director, Dr. Christine Moutier.

On another note, and you probably know this, we are working on retraining people from saying “committed suicide,” to “died by suicide or took his/her own life, to decrease the stigma that goes with “committed.”

My best ot you and all of your incredible efforts towards bringing about a better world and greater justice wherever possible.

Janet Freedman August 8, 2017 - 8:59 pm

Margaret Gullette’s insightful, beautifully written essay makes me eager to read her latest work which I know I will be inspired by this just as I have been by her previous books. Margaret’s words prompt understanding and anger and outrage and ACTIVISM against the ageism of Ezekiel Emanuel and Joe Klein and too many others.

I appreciate that Margaretshared her personal fond memories of her mother who lived into her nineties. I am privileged to have created warm memories from the special connection I cherished with my mother up until her death at 101. I’m smiling right now as I recall the pleasure she took in the caring she received from family and friends.

Adam Sacks August 9, 2017 - 11:54 am

Thank you, Margaret, for a wonderful essay. I would only like to mention an eternal quality of aging occasionally overlooked these days: wisdom.

It used to be that older people in a society were revered for their insights, knowledge and experience, characteristics which may often survive failing memories. In traditional societies the grandparents, through years of experience, knew their habitats and relationships more broadly and deeply than the young. They understood how to work with the vagaries of the natural world, how to deal with infrequent and problematic events, and how to massage the quirks of human interaction. Their counsel could even mean the difference between life and death.

Today, of course, the flimsy substitution for wisdom is the internet, the news cycles, the pollsters, the big datasets (which are virtually unmanageable by virtue of the tsunami of information). I sometimes hear young people furious at their elders for how we ruined their futures and I’m led to ask, “How would you have done it differently had you been born in my year, 1945? Do you know how many of us tried to do it differently? Do you understand the power of the zeitgeist?” It’s not a fair question because those of us over seventy-something know (and remember!) what it’s like to be twenty-something; it’s trivial to note that the reverse is not true.

Each developmental period, of which lives in denouement is one, has its offerings to the others. The loss by disdain and disrespect for any of those ages is a profound loss for us all.

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