Suicide baiting: no kindness in the Age of Anonymous Cruelty
As a high school senior, my son participated in the first 1995 Random Acts of Kindness Week, predicated on the profundity that peace activist Anne Herbert reportedly scribbled in 1982 on a Sausalito restaurant place mat: “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.”
Her alluring dictum eventually morphed into a national Random Acts of Kindness Week, an awareness initiative celebrated every second full week in February. The nonprofit RAK foundation hoped that compassion could be taught, the world made better one good deed at a time, that kindness is a language we can all understand. Like other participating schools in the nation, we helped grow Random Acts of Kindness Week.
It fills me with horror now, ironically linked forever to the death of my son, Dylan Yount, to the random and anonymous violence he experienced on the 2nd day of the 16th year of Random Acts of Kindness Week 2010, when he died at the most vulnerable point of his life in a senseless suicide baiting in Hallidie Plaza, San Francisco, his sad death diabolically distanced from any kindness or beauty on 2-16-10.
Certainly witnesses at the spontaneous arena’s savagery would record no kindness until after the anonymous hecklers had absconded with impunity and photographic booty, already digitally extending their orgy of cruelty into the cyber-time permanency of the Internet. It was a lot of evil to absorb even for cool, hip San Francisco, even for those who consider themselves on the very cutting edge of an uncivil and indifferent society apropos of no particular traditional biblical backgrounds or personal moral compasses.
Even though we know that SF is the city by the bay and not the Sea of Galilee, and even though we acknowledge that many might mistake Matthew, Chapter 5, as nothing more than an old-fashioned guidebook for good manners, no excuses exist for what happened at the suicide baiting before kinder people finally prevailed.
There was artyflipy’s Flickr entry, “sudden tender square gathering,” a title that will always remind me of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Chapter 9, the one following Simon’s savage death when his little body is gently absorbed into the forgiving sea, the language beautiful and poetic. Or Mat Thomas’ eloquent assessment in “Witness to Suicide at Powell and Market.”
These contrasted with many immediate posts following Dylan’s suicide baiting which were raw, dominated by low and vulgar boasts of how “unaffected” and “indifferent” the watchers had been. They are like the Golding protagonist Ralph, with his dark rationalization that Simon brought on his death because “he was batty.” I still shiver remembering them. Such dialogue caused us to shake our shocked heads in disbelief then. People are still shaking their heads now – worried, they say, about my anger! They tutor me that I cannot “heal” until I kindly forgive.
Yes, quite obviously, I have prodigious anger, but I am most cognizant that it is easier to say how we would respond to tragedy when it has not befallen us. I am acutely aware that it is much easier to speak of forgiveness than it is to actually forgive. Easier to offer bromides and scripture if the injustice has not been a personal affront. At the same time, I most certainly do still believe in kindness. I still believe in wishing goodness for everyone, that responding to others with gentleness can most often redeem those who trespass against us, as well as we who trespass against them.
Yet I struggle each day to understand the strange underpinnings of random, anonymous cruelty. The trouble, as I see it, is that the foundations of cruelty are supported on such high levels. The blind allegiances we bestow on our cops and courts may become our undoing; in our attempt to practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty, will we also accept random acts of anonymous cruelty as well? Will our philosophy be “it is bad, but what can we do?”
At the risk of sounding like the histrionics of Chicken Little in his reckless “the sky is falling,” I submit we are living in a time dangerously sagging toward a complete moral collapse – an Age of Anonymous Cruelty – a scary digital dystopia where people can hide anonymously, away from any accountability. While French philosopher Voltaire’s observation “no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible” might have worked well in his time, the Age of Enlightenment, it does not fit in ours. The world has shrunk so small that it fits inside the devices we carry in our hands, and we are interconnected as never before.
So each snowflake does bear responsibility for his or her role in the avalanche – we are all clearly culpable, and nothing will absolve us from our responsibility. All dilemmas from Syria to Standing Your Ground, from animal cruelty to voter disenfranchisement schemes – every problem, including suicide baiting, is a universal one. These problems are lying in plain sight, and it is sheer impossibility to turn a blind eye. We can turn, but it will not be blindly.
With every outrageous injustice we witness and do nothing about, we slide deeper into the immoral quagmire burying us. We can moan repeatedly about the lack of biblical capital to fall back on or pander all manner of conventional excuses to others, but we are still – each and every one of us – responsible for the sicknesses rampant in our world.
Of course, we can just continue to purchase a Starbuck’s coffee for the random stranger in the car behind us and call that kindness. We can pat each other on the back for our deep caring, but we will know it has been a cheap and hollow gesture that has not inconvenienced us too much. Real kindness is not an imposture. True kindness is calculated. It asks “how may I help?” It is deliberate. It often requires personal sacrifice.
In the Age of Anonymous Cruelty, kindness often falters like a vagrant, unemployed by many. It is the superfluous version of what Anne Herbert meant.