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The taboo topic

By Steven Schwartz - posted Thursday, 18 August 2022

Throughout history, censorship has been justified as necessary for a safe and well-ordered society. In China, Han dynasty leaders burned manuscripts to "protect" scholars from the malevolent influence of Qin dynasty literature. In the 15th Century, the invention of the printing press not only made books more accessible but also provided additional fuel for censors' fires. In 1933, the German government burned 25,000 books in the middle of Munich. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister responsible, claimed the elimination of "un-German" texts would benefit German youth because it would lead to a healthy "new spirit" among the young.

Like politicians, religious officials have been enthusiastic censors. In the 16th Century, the Catholic Church created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (a list of proscribed books). The list, which was rationalised as necessary to safeguard the community from sin, was not abandoned until 1966. Perhaps the most frequent target for censors has been sex. Members of the public, whose morals are always perceived to be precarious, required "protection" from the corrosive effects of obscenity.

Instead of politics, religion and sex, today's censors focus on race, gender, and other hot-button cultural issues. Universities, once bastions of intellectual freedom, are now among the most enthusiastic censors. According to the London Times newspaper, British universities are removing books from reading lists to "protect students from 'challenging' content." Apparently, reading William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie has the capacity to inflict serious harm to Britain's fragile and delicate university students.


According to the Times, one item withdrawn from a university literature course was Miss Julie by August Strindberg. The book was removed because its depiction of suicide might upset sensitive students. Unfortunately, denying students the opportunity to discuss suicide is likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Instead of protecting students, it could cost some their lives.

During my years as a university Vice-Chancellor (president), I attended two memorial services for students who took their own lives. This was two too many. But, in a way, I have been lucky to attend so few. People of all ages, races, and genders die by suicide, but young people are especially at risk. In Australia, suicide is the leading cause of death among young people.

Suicide is a taboo topic, something we do not talk about in polite company. Suicides are hushed up, disguised, and reported as accidents. The truth is that we all feel guilty and ashamed when someone we know commits suicide. We feel guilty because we think that we should have been able to prevent such behaviour; we feel ashamed because we failed.

Instead of preventing the discussion of suicide at our universities, we should be encouraging it. Students need to learn the warning signs and to look out for these signs among their friends. If a classmate gets seriously depressed or remarks about not being around much longer; if a friend begins to give away favourite possessions and talk about ending it all, knowledgeable and prepared students can offer help.

Students must also learn to refuse, for their friends' sake, to keep their suicide plans secret. And they must learn the difference between turning someone in and saving someone's life. Universities need to teach students where they can obtain help and how to get advice for friends and for themselves. Students must also know how to make emergency calls and their institutions must publicise the appropriate telephone numbers.

Staff who work in colleges or halls of residence need special training. They should learn to recognise the danger signs and how to obtain help when needed. Universities should also encourage peer education programs in which students discuss suicide with one another. It is impossible to do any of these things when books such as Miss Julie are banned.


I realise that some people may wonder whether overt attention to suicide is healthy. They fear that it will put ideas in students' heads. I understand their anxiety, but it is time for suicide to come out of the closet. Censorship is not the answer. We must talk about suicide and confront it directly. We must end the conspiracy of silence that surrounds it. We must make education and prevention our personal responsibility. I don't want to attend any more memorial services.


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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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