The Power of Permission
Josh Ng / Opinion
There was once an epidemic of suicides in Micronesia. In the 1960s, suicide was almost unknown in these South Pacific islands, but by the end of the 1980s their suicide rate was the highest in the world. Most of these suicides were teenage males who hung themselves.
One would think that these teenagers were experiencing a disproportionate level of suffering. But the studies denied this. Instead, most of these suicides were triggered by relatively small incidents, like being yelled at by a family member or seeing their girlfriends with another boy. The suicide notes tended to suggest not depression, as we usually observe, but a kind of wounded pride and self-pity.
Suicide became a cultural trend, as locally composed songs and graffiti began to feature more and more suicide ideation. One 11-year-old boy even attempted suicide simply to “try” out hanging, not because he wanted to die.
This strange historical phenomenon is a testament to the power of social trends. In a society, little things can make a big difference, even between life and death. Why is this so? A persuasive explanation involves the idea of permission. The first teenagers who completed suicide the way they did and for the reasons they did—the trendsetters—gave the others permission to do the same. And once enough teenagers picked up the trend, casual suicide ideation no longer appeared taboo. (cf. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point).
To understand how much people depend on permission, just think about the experience of being the only person standing up or clapping in a crowd. It is a strangely difficult and humiliating thing to do, and we usually feel an immediate urge to sit down, or to stop clapping. But if a number of other people are doing it, we become far more comfortable with it. In fact, at some point it becomes uncomfortable not to do it; to be the only person sitting down or not clapping can feel just as isolating. Now apply this to Micronesia and try to imagine how long you could think of suicide as a serious issue when the surrounding culture bombards you with casual talk about it.
Usually, though, we are not troubled by how much we depend on social norms. We might even see it as a healthy inclination. After all, the really weird people are those who actually care least about how others view them. We don’t want to be weird. (On the other hand, although some trendy people try to style themselves as “not caring what others think,” they typically care more than most). Since our need for permission protects us from becoming social outcasts, it must be a good thing, right? Unless, of course, it opens the way to decisions like suicide.
To follow trends is easy. For the most part, the hard work of decision-making and providing rationale has been done for you. It’s comfortable to just coast along; the most lifeless and inactive people can do it. However, if you ever find in your conscience the need to resist, remember those who have gone before you and said “No, thanks!” to the world’s offers. These people exposed its “permissions” as compulsion and its “freedoms” as traps by becoming outcasts in the world. Some were imprisoned, beaten, plundered, burned alive, fed to lions. The Chief of these martyrs—the true permission giver—was nailed to a cross.
This may look like suicide, but it’s the exact opposite. Martyrs die because of the overflowing joy, hope, and peace that they have. They have so much life that death becomes puny and surrender to the mainstream seems absurd.