The Power of Words

Words are a funny thing. They’re really nothing more than sounds, or markings on paper, but they carry weight, distinction and meaning. They are both fleeting and indelible, and in the right order have the power to change the world. Or even just a life.

A few years ago (though the case is only coming to light now), a young girl is alleged to have convinced her then-boyfriend to kill himself through nothing more than text conversations. Now on trial, she faces up to twenty years in prison if found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, yet she never even touched him.

Or did she?

When I’m writing, I don’t often consider the import of what I write; I have an idea, a scene, a thought in my head, and I simply put it on paper in the best way I know how. The specific order of the words, the flow of the paragraphs, and the subtext and meaning behind them doesn’t consciously enter my mind. (Editing is a different process, but most people don’t edit their everyday communication.) Yet I can’t escape the fact that no matter what I write, however innocuous I might think it, those words contain the potential to change a life. And if that’s the case, how do I want that life to change?

After Jay Asher released Thirteen Reasons Why (a book I’ve mentioned before), there were notable rises in teen suicides in certain areas. When Stephen King wrote Rage in 1977, it (possibly) inspired several teenagers to attack and kill their teachers and classmates. Even Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned apparently influenced a young man to kill his friend under the notion of becoming a vampire. I’m certain none of these authors had the intention of causing harm and death, yet it came about nonetheless.

The same can be said of music: Judas Priest famously went on trial in 1990 for causing the suicides of two teenage boys. They were eventually cleared of subliminal messages and guilt, but it begs the question: Judas Priest didn’t tell the two boys to kill themselves, but what did the two boys hear?

If a passage in a book inspires harm, most people don’t consider the author guilty. Even if the book contains paragraphs explicitly depicting suicide, rape or murder, it’s usually assumed the writer wasn’t trying to influence anyone.

But what if the text contains deliberate instructions? Final Exit, by Derek Humphries, is just that: a how-to book on suicide. Over the course of several chapters, it details exactly how to kill yourself efficiently and painlessly. Should someone commit suicide upon reading this book, who ought to be responsible?

This brings up the question, in regard to suicide, of course, of responsibility and right: does a suicidal person have the right to kill themselves, and should they do it with help, is the other party guilty of manslaughter or murder? Killing yourself is not (in the United States, at least) a crime, but helping someone absolutely is. If I shoot someone, I’m guilty. If I rig their car for carbon monoxide poisoning, I’m guilty. If I inject them with sodium pentathol, I’m a killer. But what if I provide the poison, but don’t administer it? What if I tell them where to get it, but nothing else? What if, imagine, I simply tell them it’s a viable way to die? Where is the line drawn?

The distinction between intentions and actions, I feel, becomes somewhat blurred in these cases. If I think to myself, this person is suffering, they’re in pain, and I want to help them escape, I may have the intention of helping them die. But the moment I say something, do I become guilty of assisted suicide? Is a mere conversation about the topic enough to condemn me?

And this is why the case of Michelle Carter is so divisive. There are undeniable texts from her encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide—many of them, on the day itself. Yet she wasn’t herself present, didn’t lock him in the car, and didn’t turn the ignition on. She didn’t watch him die. It seems clear she wanted him to die, but even the intentions behind her motivation aren’t clear. She was on anti-depressants herself, which may have influenced her judgement. Perhaps she thought she was helping him to escape his pain. Perhaps she thought it was the right thing to do.

All of this, ultimately, hinges on the importance of human life as decided by society. There is an unspoken rule, it seems, that to remain alive is the single most important thing that anyone can do. This is why suicide is so controversial a topic: its proponents argue that it is an individual’s right to choose, while its opponents would contest that someone who is genuinely suicidal is not capable of making sound and sane judgements in the first place.

Did Conrad Roy want to die? And if so, is Michelle Carter guilty? Were her words powerful enough to convince him, to change his mind? And ultimately, are words powerful enough to indict her?

What do you think? If a suicidal person is encouraged to kill themselves, should the encourager be considered guilty of murder? What if they know of the suicidal thoughts and do nothing? Is that the same? How far does the guilt extend? Or is the responsibility solely on the suicidal person, and their individual decision to take their own life?

Tell me what you think!

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