Saturday, May 4, 2013

Suicide’s on the Rise. Now for Some Cute Guinea Pigs

The Atlantic online posted a rather shocking piece by Alexander Abad-Santos this week entitled, “3,026 More People Die from Suicide in America Each Year Than in Car Crashes.” As if that revelation itself weren’t depressing enough, what was also eye-opening – and inadvertently revealing – was the way in which Abad-Santos tried to give the bad news a lighthearted spin.

In its grimly-titled Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for May 3, he wrote, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) examined an 11-year study of suicide figures and concluded that in 2009, “the number of deaths from suicide surpassed the number of deaths from motor vehicle crashes in the United States.”

An even more disturbing discovery: the age group that saw the biggest surge in suicides since the end of the millennium was Baby Boomers, Americans in their fifties. Their suicide rate boosted by nearly 50 percent. Concern about suicide usually focuses on troubled teens, not adults entering their golden years – what happened? The CDC's deputy director explained in The New York Times that the jump in Baby Boomer numbers is due partly to economic ills suffered during the study’s span of time.

After going on to detail the increase in the most popular methods for ending one’s own life (suffocation, poisoning and firearms, for those morbidly interested), Abad-Santos oddly chose to close with this:

Considering that we've just ruined your day — and that someone apparently shot himself in the head at an airport in Houston today — we leave you with this... a pair of guinea pig brothers chewing in unison:

And then he posted a 25-second video of two Guinea pigs comically chewing in sync.

(Insert sound effect of a turntable scratch.)

Huh? The hairpin turn in tone couldn’t have been more bizarrely and offensively inappropriate. I was reminded of Monty Python’s John Cleese, clad in a dinner suit, entering a comedy sketch as a radio commentator to abruptly announce, “And now for something completely different.”

Apparently Abad-Santos realized or was informed of his gaffe, because the article was swiftly edited so that the video was merely linked to, not embedded in the piece. The ending was also rewritten in a rather halfhearted effort to soften the edges of the tone:

Considering that we've just ruined your day — and that someone apparently shot himself in the head at an airport in Houston today — we're just going to stop now, crawl into bed and watch this video and try and feel better about these sobering facts.

Why Abad-Santos or his editor didn’t simply scrub the flippant video reference altogether, I can’t fathom. But at the risk of reading too much into this one example of what may simply have been one writer’s grotesque lapse in taste, I can’t resist picking at it for cultural significance.

In his landmark 1985 polemic Amusing Ourselves to Death, about the corrosive effects of television on our political and public discourse, Neil Postman devoted a whole chapter to what was once a very common television phrase, “Now… this”:

“Now... this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly – for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening – that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now... this.” The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.

His article was online, not on TV or radio, but Abad-Santos’ clumsy conclusion is exactly a reflection of this insight about the media’s integration of news and entertainment. It is symptomatic, even if unwitting, of the media’s compulsion to seize our attention with, and then immediately distance us from, bad news (like an economic freefall that drives middle-aged people to kill themselves), so that our attention might then be steered elsewhere – to the next distressing news item or the next seductive advertisement – at will.

In trying to redirect the reader’s mood, Abad-Santos inadvertently peeled back the curtain on that manipulation.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/3/13)