Lifelines

The truth about life and love.

Pranks and Pretension

Personal responsibility for unintended consequences

There is currently an especially absurd dust-up over whether the originators of the prank call from an Australian radio station are responsible for the subsequent suicide of a hospital nurse who received and transferred the call. The show has already been cancelled and the DJ’s involved (the targets of nearly universal condemnation, including death threats) have tearfully apologized. Scotland Yard is investigating and there is talk of potential criminal responsibility on the part of the DJ’s and the radio station.

Please! Get a grip. As a psychiatrist I can say that the thread of causality between a prank call and suicide is very thin indeed. No one is commenting on the responsibility or likely emotional equilibrium of the nurse and mother of two, who, after all, was the one who made the decision to end her life. She was not at first publicly named or apparently sanctioned in any way by the hospital for what can only be described as an unimportant mistake that had zero adverse consequences on patient care or confidentiality – unless you believe that whether or not the Duchess of Cambridge is sleeping or retching is important.

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Another ridiculous aspect of the story, then, is that we were paying attention at all to the fact that the patient involved was in the hospital for intractable morning sickness. The Royal Family appears to exist in part to promote the notoriety of people of no special accomplishment. Millions are persuaded to pay attention to the deaths, births, and marital problems of these accidental celebrities who fairly cry out for pranking.

We are responsible only for the reasonably predictable consequences of our behavior. How many of us have perpetrated or endured incidents that resulted in our own or someone else’s humiliation? How many of us were led to contemplate either legal action or suicide as a result? There clearly was no malice on anyone’s part in this story. Should we outlaw pranking?

After the 9/11 tragedies there was much talk about “the death of irony,” the world having “changed forever,” and the possibility that we would never laugh again after such an enormity. Eleven years later those ideas seem as ridiculous as do the torches-and-pitchfork mentality that now accompanies calls for punishment of people whose job it is to entertain us. If we don’t think their jokes (or pranks) are funny, we are free to change the station.

We are always at risk of taking ourselves too seriously. That’s why the call was made in the first place. It was a way to make fun of a ceremonial institution designed primarily to satisfy our need to gossip and to pay attention to trivial things. That this could become a trigger for someone to end her life is tragic but wildly improbable.

Let’s all reflect a moment on the randomness and unpredictability of the world we live in and stop calling for the ruination of more lives to satisfy our need to blame someone. None of us have a clear picture of the causality behind such a tragedy. Perhaps we could leave this question to those most directly affected and return our attention to things that are really important, like the sex and probable name of the next heir to the British throne.

 

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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