The reality of social momentum

When I read about the epidemic of suicides in Woodstock Ontario there was a small concept that was mentioned in passing that caught my attention. These suicides appear to be “contagious.” As news of the suicides spread through the community, and especially spread like wildfire through social media, that somehow made suicide feel a little less foreign and horrible to other youth in the same community. After all, really nice people who are struggling did it, so if I’m struggling…

What a strange concept, but it highlights a reality about humanity that we seem to overlook, something I call “social momentum.”

In Western Civilization there is this tendency to think of people from a highly individualistic frame of reference. The whole concept of “look out for number one” is alive and well, and we forget (or try to ignore) the fact that humanity is inherently social. Every decision I make impacts others. The idea of doing something “in the privacy of my own…” is an illusion, but an illusion we are extremely attracted to, and keep telling ourselves over and over again.

But our social nature becomes apparent when these kinds of trends emerge; especially the disturbing trends. One youth kills herself and for those around her the concept of suicide becomes just a little less troubling. If her friend was already struggling with mental health issues of various sorts – and perhaps had contemplated suicide in the past – then the door to suicide has been cracked just a little more open. If he follows suit then you now have two. Their community of friends is shocked, and the ripple wave continues.

This is one of the bases for opposition to the assisted suicide law in Canada. Once assisted suicide becomes somewhat more commonplace then more and more people are likely to see that as a legitimate option for them. And for less and less significant causes. According to the Netherlands experience, assisted suicide is continuously on the rise year after year. Between 2008 and 2013 it more than doubled as the following chart shows.

This article on “euthanasia” describes how assisted suicide rates steadily rise wherever it is legalized. Here are some quotes.

  • Official figures released yesterday, showed that euthanasia deaths soared by 13 per cent in 2012 compared to the previous year. It marks the sixth consecutive year that deaths by euthanasia have increased in the Netherlands.
  • Last year, Belgium, where euthanasia came into force in 2003, saw a 25 per cent increase in the number of euthanasia deaths
  • In Washington State in the U.S., physician-assisted suicide deaths increased by 17 per cent in 2012 to 83 cases, up from 70 in 2011.
  • Switzerland, which first relaxed prohibitions on assisted suicide in 1942, has seen a 700 per cent increase deaths in the same period.

The trend is summarized well by this observation,

‘The Dutch experience shows that euthanasia becomes routine,’ she added. ‘It traps more and more people into thinking they ought to leave this world prematurely.

‘In that kind of culture euthanasia becomes expected and inevitable and everything else – such as good palliative care and a functional hospice movement – is gradually portrayed as rather selfish.’

[Emphasis added.]

Sounds a little bit like social momentum, doesn’t it? Just as suicide became acceptable in Woodstock, assisted suicide becomes increasingly acceptable wherever it is legalized.

The reality of social momentum certainly is not limited to suicides and assisted suicides. Various other social indicators reveal a variety of trends. This article on no-fault divorce in Canada has a revealing chart on page 5. Divorce rates steadily rose immediately after no-fault divorce was introduced in Canada in 1968. They appear to have stabilized in recent decades, but clearly the momentum has had its impact; according to the article roughly 40 percent of marriages are likely to end in divorce. And just as people are seeking suicide and/or assisted suicide for non-life-threatening conditions (like an obsession with cleaning) so people seeking divorce are doing so for increasingly less significant reasons.

Abortion is another interesting case. Abortion statistics for Canada used to be fairly easy to find on the internet, but for some reason I had a little more trouble this time. However, I found this site and the numbers look about right relative to last time I checked. The percent of pregnancies that get aborted is shown in the chart below.
abortionFrom the moment abortion was first legalized by Trudeau in 1969 the percent of babies that were aborted has risen relatively steadily up to a peak of about 25%. At the peak, 1 in 4 Canadian babies was killed before it ever saw the light of day. Thankfully that number has been dropping in recent years; today we’re down to only about 1 in 5 babies. It is still safer to play Russian Roulette with a six-shooter than to be an unborn baby in Canada.

Despite the recent drop, however, it is clear to see that there was significant social momentum in the first decades after it became legalized. And when it was fully decriminalized in 1988 you can see the upward trend accelerate a second time.

And, as with divorce and assisted suicide, it should be self-evident that the justifications for having an abortion must have grown increasingly trivial. It’s hard to imagine that 1 in 5 pregnancies represents a serious threat to the health of the mother.

So why does this happen? Why are there trends like this? This reality must come as a bit of a surprise for people in our highly individualistic society.

As much as these laws are allegedly intended to protect the “rights” of the individual, the simple reality is that no individual is ever isolated from the community of people around them. We are social creatures, whether we like it or not. Sometimes we like to delude ourselves into thinking we can do this or that “in the privacy of our own homes” or “bedroom” or “a doctor’s office,” but such a mindset is pure naivety. Given the social nature of humans, virtually everything we do will have some kind of impact on others, and it is the pinnacle of wishful thinking to imagine that this is not the case.

When you commit suicide – with or without a doctor’s help – that will push other people just a little closer to suicide themselves. When you abort your baby, that will make abortion just a little more acceptable in the eyes of others. When you divorce, your divorce adds to an ever-higher pile of divorces that collectively proclaim that, “divorce is normal.”

How you live your life – even your “private” life – matters to others. You will impact those around you no matter how hard you try to keep your actions to yourself. It cannot be avoided; it comes with the territory of being human. Your actions will either speed up an existing social momentum, or help introduce a new social momentum. And not all momentum is driving in a positive direction so make your choices wisely. Which social momentum are you pushing?

Never forget, we’re in this together.


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