Crossing the Line

by Joe Peters | 10/31/96 6:00am

I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this, I plan to end my own life."

Last Tuesday, Kathy Change did just that. First she delivered packages of her writings to eight people with whom she had previously discussed her political beliefs. Next, she doused herself with gasoline in front of Penn's Van Pelt library, lit the match, and burned to death despite attempts to save her.

Change (formerly Chang) had been a fixture on the Penn campus since 1981, when she started demonstrating on the campus green to publicize her vision of a "true" democracy. Due to the peaceful nature of her demonstrations, which consisted merely of dancing and waving flags on the green, she was regarded more as a harmless eccentric than a social activist.

In a recent article on "The Flag Woman" the Wharton Journal laughingly asked, "Who among us will be as fortunate to relish our job as much (or a dress code as liberal) as she does?" But the violent nature of her death obviously changed the shape of the debate. While Change intended her suicide as a spur to prompt the discussion and debate of her ideas, the spur -- in my opinion -- deserves even more dissuasion than the ideas themselves.

In her Oct. 7 letter to the Daily Pennsylvanian from which the preceding quote is taken, Change continued by saying, "The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself." She then goes on to say, "A life is worth saving only if it is worth living" and concluded, "I offer myself ... as a torch for liberty."

There's nothing new about using violence to attract attention to a message, as anyone who has heard of the Unabomber can attest. But the unique -- and bizarre -- thing about Change was that she inflicted the violence on herself as a symbol. It was a calculated act, designed to push her ideas into the public forum. In short, it was a form of speech.

This raises an interesting dilemma. Was her act one of the highest expression of free speech or its most flagrant abuse? The First Amendment does not give us the right to injure others by the expression of our rights -- but does it explicitly deny us the choice to injure ourselves if we decide that such an act is necessary?

In Change's case, she determined that her death would speak more eloquently than 15 years of dances and peaceful demonstration. Some may call her act morally repugnant, and in truth, I'm inclined to agree. Yet the fact remains that her theory was correct -- if it weren't, I wouldn't be writing this now.

On the other hand, if you consider Change's suicide to be merely a novel, if grotesque, method of expression, consider the following statement from her manuscript "To Be or Not to Be," in which she debates her reasons for suicide:

"I must give life to my cause because I can't be at peace any other way ... the destiny of the whole human race follows from me carrying out my destiny. Yes, I do believe I'm a very important person."

Ludicrous? Definitely. Absurdly egotistic? Of course.

But was she insane?

We've all heard of the infamous line between genius and insanity. Which side of the line was she on? To give up a "worthless life" for deep convictions and a chance at martyrdom may be shrewd, if not necessarily heroic. But to contemplate self-destruction in such detached terms requires courage not far removed from insanity.

Since our lives are regarded as our most valuable possessions, society has resolved the preceding dilemma by portraying the desire to die as an irrational one, generally coming from mental instability. But if it is a fully conscious and calculated decision meant to serve a greater good -- What then? Is the desire still insane? If a message, like Change's, is sounded more powerfully by death than in life -- does society have the right to silence this message in exchange for a life that its owner considers "not worth living?"

I don't know.