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MAY 9, 2012 7:48PM

Chet Hanks, Victim Blaming, and the “Weakness” of Suicide

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Chet Hanks, son of Tom Hanks and a student here at Northwestern, has this to say about victims of bullying:

Chet's tweet: "Ayo I don't condone bullying but anyone who offs themselves cuz they got picked on is weak."

Credit: Gawker

And then, perhaps in response to people who responded to him (including yours truly), Chet tweeted these followups:

“I say real shit and I always speak my mind if you don’t like it I could give a fuck less.”

“Lol…Haters: I am sorry I do not cater to your demographic: shlubby dudes that don’t get laid enough it’s ok go back to your Internet porn”

“G’head check my feed, all the people hatin are mediocre Lames and cute girls show me love #whatdoesthattellyou

How mature.

Sometimes I wish someone would invent a technology that allows you to connect to someone else’s brain and actually feel what they feel. Because language is a poor substitute.

Maybe if we had such a technology, people would finally understand that mental illness and suicide do not happen to people because they are “weak.”

However, since we don’t have such a technology, the best we can do is educate ourselves about other people, something that college provides a great opportunity to do. It’s too bad that Chet Hanks seems not to be taking advantage of it.

Some of the comments on the Gawker piece I linked to, while generally dismissive of Chet Hanks, are hardly any better:

His expression of emotion is misguided and a bit douche-y, but I second the sentiment. Suicide is a horrible option to exercise as a bullying deterrent. It’s a permanent solution to a potentially temporary problem. It exchanges the pain you feel for the pain of those around you who love you and is essentially a selfish act.
Suicide is selfish and hurts people who care about you, but calling people who are potentially thinking about doing it weak is only going to make things worse. He could have expressed this sentiment in a way that was constructive and helped people, instead of highlighting what an asshat he is.

It’s probably true that some people are psychologically more susceptible to suicide than others, but that difference has nothing to do with “strength” or “weakness.” It also has nothing to do with “willpower” and “selfishness.” To put it broadly, suicide is what happens when a person no longer wants to live–which isn’t necessarily the same thing as wanting to die.

Tragically, most people who commit suicide do so at least in part because they don’t feel like anyone will miss them, and contrary to what the self-righteous commenters above seem to think, not everyone does have friends or family who care about them. It’s also worth noting that, with the exception of people like me who were bullied for being nerdy, kids who get bullied tend to already be marginalized by society in numerous ways–because of fatness or ugliness, mental or physical disability, perceived or real homosexuality, noncompliance with gender roles, and so on. Sometimes, these are the very children who are least likely to have supportive parents, siblings, teachers, and friends cheering them on through their trials.

What Chet seems to miss is that the causal relationship between bullying and suicide isn’t just that a kid goes to school one day and gets called a fag and comes home and tries to kill himself. Bullying is almost never a one-time thing; it can continue over months or years. It’s a constant wearing down of an individual’s self-worth and belief that he/she belongs in this world. Bullies don’t simply call you names and beat you up–they convince you that nobody wants you here.

While supportive friends and family can alleviate these tragic effects somewhat, as I mentioned, not everyone has supportive friends and family. And even if they do, that may not be enough. Children don’t have the freedom that adults have–they’re completely powerless to escape the situation by moving or dropping out of school. The only recourse they generally have is telling an authority figure at school, and that tends to do nothing at best or backfire at worst.

But of course, pretty much everyone reading this blog probably already knows all that. What they probably don’t know is how it actually feels to seriously consider suicide, and how little it has to do with concepts like “weakness” and “selfishness.” If you’d like to hear about it from someone who knows of what she speaks, feel free to ask me personally. Otherwise, I’d recommend this amazing book.

After we read about Chet’s tweet, some of my friends and I started talking about the whole concept of victim blaming and how pervasive it is in our society. Although it’s usually talked about in the context of sexual assault, there really isn’t a single shitty human experience that doesn’t routinely get blamed on its victims: mental illness, bullying, poverty, racism, sexual harassment, you name it. If you have depression, it’s because you’re just not looking on the bright side of life. If you’re getting bullied, it’s because you stick out too much or “react” too much. If you’re poor, it’s because you’re too lazy to get a job. If you’re fat, it’s because you eat crap and don’t exercise. If you feel discriminated against, it’s because you’re “too sensitive.” If you’re getting harassed on the street, your skirt’s too short. And so on and so forth.

(In fact, as Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her brilliant book Bright-sided, even cancer, that ultimate of tragedies, is increasingly getting blamed on its victims. Why? Because they didn’t “think positively” enough.)

Sometimes, it’s really difficult and unpleasant to acknowledge the fact that, even in our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, when-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way sort of culture, sometimes life just screws people. Sometimes it just does.

It’s easier to blame the victim than to make the sort of cultural changes we would need to make sure that people get screwed over as little as possible. Much easier than to figure out how to teach compassion to kids, how to eradicate racism, how to get people to realize that there’s never an excuse for raping people.

But just because we may not yet know how to do those things does not mean we should just throw up our hands and say, “Yeah well, if they off themselves, it’s just cuz they’re weak.”

The more I study psychology, bullying, and the many challenges faced by people that society continually marginalizes, the more I think: If only it were that simple.

Filed under: college life, psychology, social justice, sociology/culture Tagged: bullying, celebrities, culture, mental illness, psychology, society, suicide, twitter

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Excellent post, Miriam. My mom has a history of mental illness and now has Alzheimer's (talk about adding insult to injury) and I have read about ways to "prevent" Alzheimer's which I find utterly insulting and again, victim-blaming. As if she had a choice in her brain chemistry. Rated.
Very good post - and I understand you completely - do 'you' understand what 'I' am saying? Yes, I've been on that edge... sometimes there are things in life that can really rock your world. My solution came in finding God - I didn't know where else to turn. Oddly enough - things actually got a lot worse, but I was better able to cope. I (as Job did) lost everything - home, family, animals, everything.

What I have learned as I studied this 'faith thing' was that what Christians go through is a learning process called life - that process will teach you things that will allow you to help those around you. Would you or I rather deal with someone with a bunch of book smarts or someone that actually had experience. That answer is obvious.

The 'person of faith' that actually attends church services will learn to find support in ways that non-believers do not have access to. They discover that there is someone always available to them that understands them and can help.

I would be curious to see what the statistics were in regards to those with and without faith.
With regard to the physical bullying of children, I place a lot of the blame on our schools. A target defending him or herself gets in as much, if not more, trouble than the aggressor. It is much easier to stand up for yourself without fear of punishment hanging over your head. Left to sort things out on their own, most kids will just work it out and adults are only called in when things get out of control (e.g., weapons, multiple kids attacking 1 kid).

For example... my son was being by a kid when he was in elementary school. One day, this kid (who had been picking on my son for years) got some of his friends to help him stuff my son in a trash can, close it up and start kicking it and rolling it around. No adults witnessed it. Later that day, my son saw an opportunity to exact revenge, cornered the ringleader and punched him out. He ended up with in school suspension and school administrators were very frustrated with me because I did not see a problem with my son's behavior other than he should have waited until after school.

There was no punishment for the bullies in the trash can incident. But you know what? That was the last act of physical violence against my child by that group of kids.

This is an excellent example of how our schools are actually making things worse for victims of physical bullying. The stereotype of the big dumb kid stealing little kids' lunch money is no longer valid. Modern bullies are smart enough or cunning enough to work within and around the rules to ensure that they don't get caught, but their targets do.

Fortunately my son never had thoughts of suicide, and we did watch for that because of his psychological history, and in talking to him I think it was that small measure of control that he felt he was able to exercise over his life that kept him from getting really depressed about it. He was, and still is, picked on quite a bit but he gives as good as he gets and does not consider himself a victim any more.
Wonderful and insightful post. After twenty-nine years I finally went to a Suicide Survivors meeting. Nothing weak in that room and not a sngle "victim." Education is the key and you did a good job of furthuring that. Thanks.
Great post! I have a theory for why victims get blamed so often, many times even by themselves. I think it is on a deep level a fear response. It is easier and more comforting to believe that you have control and could prevent being a victim by doing some simple thing different than the victim.
There is nothing more frightening that realizing that even when you are a good person who did nothing wrong, terrible things can and do still happen to you that are completely beyond your control.

If you can find that one thing a victim has done "wrong" it is a shield against that fear. This, I think, is also why even friends and family will share their simple "all you have to do is..." with you and sincerely think they are being helpful and act all puzzled when you take offence. They really believe these things because they are too afraid not to.
If you've been a victim remember this and remember that you have survived what others are so frightened of that they can't even face the possibility it could happen to them too.
Tom's kid sounds incredibly shallow and apparently hasn't seen many of his father's films; if he had you'd think he'd have a better understanding of how complicated human beings are, based on the characters his dad has played.
There's nothing "weak" or selfish about suicide. Many people believe they'd be less of a burden on loved ones if they killed themselves. Most people contemplating suicide are employing "constricted" thinking. It's impossible for them to see the bigger picture. They're also ambivalent about it. Self-annihilation goes against what the brain is hardwired to do - preserve the self. Suicide is a sad, lonely, and solitary act but there's nothing "weak" about it. Excellent post.
Not about bullying, blaming or 'victims.' but your "most people who commit suicide do so at least in part because they don’t feel like anyone will miss them," hits home.
Incredibly disappointed here to read that Tom Hanks raised a child who thinks or speaks like that.