One of — if not the most — iconic reaction to Robin Williams’ tragic passing was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Aladdin-inspired tribute to the comic legend. Surely, you’ve seen it:
Like any major news story, Williams’ death has spawned a veritable ecosystem of sideshows and distractions (an ecosystem to which I admittedly love to add).
One such offshoot revolves around the Academy’s tweet, which has come under some criticism for allegedly aggrandizing Williams’ decision to take his own life. According to one widely-shared piece in The Washington Post:
More than 270,000 people have shared the tweet, which means that, per the analytics site Topsy, as many as 69 million people have seen it.
The problem? It violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide.
“If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it,” said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion.”
I’ll readily admit Moutier might have a point. Suicide is not something that should be encouraged.
But here’s the thing: a lot of people might have shared the same tribute before the cause of Williams’ death became clear, of simply without knowing the circumstances surrounding his passing. Take, for instance, the very first time* “Genie, You’re free” appeared on Twitter Tuesday:
As you can see above, the Tweet directly quotes a report that does not specify any particular cause of death. That same account did not mention the possibility of suicide for at least another hour:
By the time @CNBCWorld tweeted that additional crucial bit of information, something like 100 people had published some variation on “Genie, You’re free”. Evan Rachel Wood’s popular rendition came out about one minute after that [and probably took longer than a minute to put together]:
Obviously, not everyone gets their BREAKING news from an arbitrarily-selected news account on Twitter, so I’m not going to suggest that Williams’ suicide was a secret for that full hour. After all, the cause of death appears to have been part of initial reports out of Marin County.
But not everybody read the police report. And it’s important to remember that different people learn different parts of every story at different times, and that there are perfectly reasonable explanations why someone might have written or retweeted “Genie, You’re free” completely independent of Williams’ wish to
be free die.
I can make that claim with reasonable confidence because I tweeted almost exactly the same thing without realizing at the time that Williams had committed suicide, and can tell you precisely what was going through my mind:
At the time, all I knew was that I had seen Williams’ name trending on Facebook, immediately followed by a short blurb indicating that he had passed away. I instantly knew how I wanted to say goodbye — and that’s all I was trying to do. My invocation of Williams’ role as one of the more iconic (to my generation?) characters was not about escaping this world to a better reality, but simply an acknowledgement that the beloved actor would no longer be with us.
I have no doubt others had other things in mind — some problematic, others benign — when they RTed @TheAcademy or Evan Rachel Wood or came up with the line for themselves. I can only speak for myself — and it’s impossible to definitively say who knew what when. By the time the Academy published its tweet nearly two hours after the news initially broke, and an hour after @CNBCWorld, my guess is that Williams’ cause of death was quite widely-known. In fact, minimal research on Twitter indicates that at the time I tweeted my own tribute, over an hour before the Academy, it was also widely known. And if I’d taken the time to read my Twitter feed more carefully, or even read an article about his passing, I probably would have known it.
But that doesn’t mean I did. My response was immediate, and it was visceral, and I published it without taking the time to read more about the breaking story. And I would venture that at least some number, even if a small minority, of the hundreds of thousands who spread the meme did so without knowing, or at least thinking about, the fact that Williams died by hanging himself.
And one last thing that I want to first preface with two things. First, I fully understand why suicide advocates have taken the opportunity to turn “Genie, You’re free” into a teachable moment about suicide. Almost certainly, some people did share the message with the intent these advocates would prefer to see disappear.
Second [spoiler alert in the sense that what follows might spoil your day], the very last paragraph of this post contains a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing. I am taking two measures to protect my more delicate readers. One, I will link separately to the offensive image, so if you don’t want to see it and be offended, don’t click. Two, I am giving you ample warning in advance so that you are hereby legally estopped from asserting that I damaged your delicate sensibilities and/or am a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person. Anyway, here goes. Just try to remember, before judging me, that I am including it as an example of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing to post.
And one last thing, this time for real. The people who tweeted “Genie, You’re free” largely did so with the best intentions. Telling them they have done something terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad is probably going to make them feel terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad — and that can’t be a great thing for the cause of suicide prevention either. Remember, they’re not the trolls who forced Robin’s daughter to delete her Twitter and Instagram accounts. They just love and miss Robin Williams and wanted to wish him goodbye in the most poignant way they could.
So before you continue to condemn those hundreds of thousands of people, remember this: They tweeted an image of a hug, of togetherness, of connection, of sorrow, of longing, of love, and of gratitude. Is that really so terrible? It’s not like they tweeted [remember, this is truly terrible, don’t click what follows if you’re going to think less of the person who placed it here because — and I can’t emphasize this enough — he is only including it as an example of a truly terrible thing for people to have posted] something like this.
*Determined using the search string (“”you’re free”” genie OR robin OR williams -@theacademy -academy -dangers since:2014-08-11 until:2014-08-12).