Friday, April 12, 2013

When Did We Get So Griefy?

BBC2 is currently part way through a documentary series called Keeping Britain Alive: A Day In The NHS. I haven't seen it but I have seen the trailers. The whole series was filmed in one day with 100 camera crews trying to capture the enormity of what happens in the National Health Service which is, apparently, this nation's biggest institution. In the trails for it, we are told that on any given day 1,300 of us die and 2,000 of us are born.

One thousand, three hundred of us. Daily. That's a lot of dying. For each and every one of those 1,300 deaths someone, somewhere mourns. Or at least I (sort of) hope they do... because to contemplate someone passing away leaving nobody to feel their loss seems bleaker and sadder still.

When someone you love passes it goes without saying that the sadness is deep. And it is deeply individual too. But every day we hear about the deaths of strangers and in comparison it barely registers. Of course it can stir some emotions - but none of us is able to pretend that it compares to the death of a loved one. At times we all read news stories that involve the death of a stranger, tut, feel perhaps a blip of sadness and then turn the page. It doesn't make us unfeeling animals, it makes us human. Grief is not the normal response to the death of a stranger... if it were, we would all be in a permanent state of grief and then none of us would get on with living for all the death that surrounds us. Of course we empathise with those who have lost loved ones, but that's not the same thing. We sometimes raise a glass to those whose lives touched ours from afar. And we contemplate our own mortality when it turns out the pop stars we sang along to in our youth don't actually live forever. But we also turn the page and get on with things.

This is a recent story from one of our red top tabloids: 
It's not just the opening paragraph... it's the whole story, as reported, in its entirety. What a way to talk about a man's death! What a way to talk about a man's life. Fifty seven years and he gets one cor-blimey-would-you-believe-it! sentence.

What are we supposed to think when we read this story? What, if anything, are we being invited to feel?  Sadness? I don't think that's the writer's intention. Amazement? Maybe.
How many people do you think read this? How many of them do you think have given Herr Binder a second thought since?

But it seems that when a celebrity passes, the rules are different. Because we know who they are we feel they are not strangers. But they are. Aren't they? We seem to have become, well, something of a griefy bunch.

Not long after Whitney Houston died I was taken to task by a stranger on Twitter for the insensitive way in which I'd responded to that sad news. Which was odd to me because I hadn't mentioned her passing at all. Not on twitter. Nor anywhere else for that matter. When I read the news, I registered my surprise to a friend and then - rightly, I think - regarded it as nothing-to-do-with-me.

And that was what had upset him. It was, he thought, disrespectful of me to not tweet an RIP message. Things have come to a pretty pass when the absence of mourning is considered an insult.

I don't know when we became so griefy as a nation. (Nor do I know if it is confined to these shores). Is it trite to call it a symptom of our Post-Diana world? It probably is. But that was certainly a time when the failure-to-mourn was seen by some to be an active sign of rebellion rather than, y'know, normal. I think it's connected.

But I think things have been magnified by the growth of the internet in general and of Twitter in particular. In a world where everyone can express every nano-thought in an instant, some people do just that. Because they can. Because it's there. It might be a good reason for climbing Mount Everest but it's a lousy one for tweeting what you had for breakfast.

When Stephen Gately died there was a Twitter campaign to get one of Boyzone's singles to number one "in his honour". I suspect that was in part fuelled by the anger stirred up by Jan Moir's Daily Mail opinion piece on his passing. As insensitive a piece of writing as I can recall. The article had angered me but I couldn't begin to understand the campaign. I was asked to retweet a "let's all buy his single" message and when I didn't do so, one person told me that my failure to get on board meant I was insulting his memory. I wasn't. I just didn't want to own a Boyzone single. That's not an insult to Stephen Gately. More to the point, it's not an insult to his memory.

I am unable to feel true, deep sadness about someone's death unless it is someone I know. Does that make me a bad man? I don't think so. When musicians I admire die, they live on in my record collection. I do not lose them. Their children lose a parent, their parents lose a child and their partners lose a lover and my feelings are only for those people. It seems selfish to me to think otherwise. But if you feel differently - if your connection to a performer feels stronger than that and you feel a deeper sadness, then that's fine by me. But please don't make the assumption that we must all feel the same emotion to the same degree and that anyone not doing so is being rude. That's not fair.

For what it's worth, I can't celebrate a death either. And it probably hasn't escaped your attention that this blog is appearing at a time when many appear to be doing just that. I'm as non-plussed by that as I am by those who want us all to grieve. It's nothing to do with me. But then, in truth, it's nothing to do with most of us and that hasn't stopped people weighing in on both sides.

I suspect it would have happened to some degree no matter what. But I wonder if it would have had the same focus? Some of it feels more reactive than that. Some of it feels like people cocking a snook at those who assumed the whole nation would be plunged into mourning. A sort of, "well, if you're going to demand our reverence, we'll show you just how irreverent we can be", stance. And the louder one side screams that we should all be sad, the louder the others will scream that they're happy. And vice versa.

The magnitude of one's achievements does not, for me, magnify the sadness of one's death. What it magnifies is the font used to report it and the number of column inches given over to it. Most of us will get nothing. Markus Binder got one not particularly reverent sentence. Others get pages 1-14 of every newspaper and "souvenir" pull out sections to boot. That doesn't make their passing sadder. Not really. Not for those of us who didn't know them. Not for me, anyway. It just makes it louder. Bigger. More. And if you amplify the response - you amplify all of it.


Joe Butler said...

I really enjoyed reading this, I've recently started a work placement at a funeral director and its been quite intense seeing so much death. I do feel that social media is not a fitting obituary. I can't imaging the idea of someone looking to me like I'm obliged to say something about someone I didn't know's passing. When I do see people writing about family members passing on facebook it looks like a personal statement for sympathy that really draws the attention from the person that died. If you want to be loud about someone's death throw yourself on the coffin during the funeral and shout "noooooo! take me instead" like we've instructed our best friends to do along with delete the internet history.

Steve Kilner said...

I was thinking much the same thing on my journey home from work today. I was listening to BBC 5 Live (the next best thing to Absolute Radio), as they excitedly reported on the decision of the controller of BBC Radio 1, Ben Cooper, to play only a “four or five” second clip of Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead on the official chart show. The impression I got was that this decision was born out of a desperate wish to find some form of compromise, one that would limit any offence to Mrs Thatcher’s family, friends and those who would ‘grieve’ her loss, whilst respecting those who choose to ‘celebrate’ her death. Personally, I choose to do neither.

What baffled me a little was that in constantly going on about it, the BBC were doing a cracking job of publicising the song and thus guaranteeing maximum offence to those who might be offended by such things. I can have sympathy for it being a difficult decision, but I really am not bothered either way. I just want them to stop going on about it.

I posted something to that end on Facebook, mentioning that I would soon be printing a range of t-shirts with the slogan “I really don’t give a shit, either way” on them. I then spoke to a friend who insisted on ticking me off for being so disrespectful to Margaret Thatcher. I tried to explain that my post was a satirical comment on how the poor Beeb were getting their knickers in a twist and in trying their damndest to “do the right thing” were sort of doing the opposite. However, my friend was adamant that any mention of the late Mrs T that didn’t include the words “patriot”, “Falklands” and “saved our country” were disrespectful and that the whole country should have some form of a minute’s silence this weekend. I don’t mind if she wants to observe this but why should I? What makes me such a bad guy if I choose not to?

In the end, I made a deal with her. I will mourn the loss of Mark and Carol’s mother, just as much as they will mourn the passing of mine. And then we both agreed that we would mourn the loss of Dave Gorman, may that not be for many, many years to come.

All best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Well said.



PS. If it's any consolation, you make me laugh, and that helps me on my journey to the final destination!

Chris Laslett said...

What this does do is make me terribly sad for the family of Markus Binder. What a truly awful thing to happen. But that will pass shortly, as is correct and natural when hearing bad news about people I don't know. Good post.

Lynds64 said...

Great post. I can 'feel' more for the 96 victims of Hillsborough as I'm a Liverpool fan, or for the victims of Sandy Hook, a terrible tragedy and being a mother the thought of losinhg a child like that is unbearable. But just because somebody is famous doesn't make their death more relevant to me. Mrs Thatcher was an elderly lady not in the best of health - I don't feel a terrible sense of shock and certainly no personal impact.
The whole social network thing bugs me. I have friends who've berated me for not re-posting messages about the need to beat cancer. I work on oncology drugs in the pharmaceutical industry, I have recently lost friends to cancer, I had a minor breast cancer scare myself. I know what the disease does - I don't need to continually post statuses to support people fighting it. When people talk about cyber-bullying they should include being force-fed grief and guilt in it!

Emma Spreadbury said...

You've read 'The Outsider'?

Such hard judgements made on indifference.

Dave Gorman said...

@Emma Spreadbury: I've not read it, no. But isn't the indifference that which Meursault feels to the death of his mother that is judged harshly. He feels like a stranger when, of course, he isn't. It's the strangers who have an intense-lack-of-indifference* that perplex me most. (* I'm sure there's a better word/phrase for that, but it eludes me at the moment)

Marty Windle said...

@martywindle Thanks for this Dave.The antithesis of this is the like police that seem to dominate facebook. I had a posting from somebody recently who said please like my wife's new facebook page showing pictures of her cakes. He linked a facebook page showing badly out of focus shots of her cakes. I took no action. The next day his post is "I have 2000 friends and only 200 of you liked my wife's " He was clearly upset.

Can't we choose what we want to like anymore?

Rjs said...

@Martywindle - That's because 'friend' and 'like' have come to mean something very different since the world became attached to facebook.

Rjs said...

Dave, this is a similar response to that I've heard internet trolls say.

Before you reach for the reply button, I'm not saying that's where you're coming from because trolls take it to the extreme by disrespecting the deceased, but they are basically asking why, when someone dies and it hits the media, do they get pages of hollow 'RIP' messages from people who didn't even know them.

The wellwishers have their hearts in the right place but do they feel real grief or are they just expressing faux grief because it's easy to do from thier keyboard.

Simon Coward said...

A nice, thoughtful and sane piece. I'll miss you when you go!