Monday, 29 August 2016

Vicarious Grief and the Media

“Happiness lies for those who cry, those who hurt, those who have searched and those who have tried. For only they can appreciate the importance of people who have touched their lives.” — Victor Hugo

“Royal summoned mourners. They came from the village, from the neighbouring hills and, wailing like dogs at midnight, laid siege to the house. Old women beat their heads against the walls, moaning men prostrated themselves: it was the art of sorrow, and those who best mimicked grief were much admired. After the funeral everyone went away, satisfied that they'd done a good job.”

― Truman Capote, House of Flowers

"According to Chochinov, there are a couple of catches to vicarious grief. The less the victims resemble us, the less grief we feel. And we don't seem to feel this grief as acutely for those who suffer from chronic problems, which often have their common denominator in poverty."
Maria King Carroll

It seems that every event like the tragic murder of Labour Jo Cox, or the shootings in Orlando attract comments across the globe,

Part of that is natural enough. We are all shocked by such events, and we want to express how we feel. That’s a very human need.

But I cannot help noticing that we seem to get a lot of official statements, especially those from notable people with only a marginal connection to the tragedies. It is almost as if there is an impulse to grab some of the grief, and somehow participate in the event vicariously.  These are people who have little or no connection to the tragic events, but they will have their say. 

It is a trend which has certainly been growing over the last decades, and of course the most extraordinary outpouring of grief, and official statements from famous people on the margins of that event, was the death of Princess Diana. The grief which overtook the nation seemed at times almost hysterical, not least when the Queen was pilloried for not lowering the Royal Standard, and for maintaining a discreet and reserved silence.

It is rather like the way in which conventional upbringing of boys has the mantra that boys should not be “cry babies” and that grown men do not cry. It seems a learned part of our cultural makeup that we have to show open signs of mourning at a tragedy, and none more that celebrities.

Part of this is fermented  by the media. In his study of the subject, R. Scott Sullender notes that:

“The media’s coverage of both real and fictional death and trauma has increased the incidence of vicarious grieving and vicarious traumatisation by the viewing public. Accessing the human innate capacity to empathize, the media invites us to share in the sorrow of others and to bind together in times of collective tragedy. At the same time, the intensity and scope of the public’s exposure to unnatural death might be creating a generation that is actually less sensitive to the needs of others.”

As Chochinov showed, “People feel vicarious grief in proportion to the amount of media coverage they are exposed to.”

Annie Hauser exemplifies this manipulation by the media very well when she made the extraordinary claim that "We are seeing the mourning live on television, so it becomes not vicarious grief, but real grief."

And this leads to a kind of “social contagion” when intense reactions became somewhat infectious to those who observed them and stimulated within these observers their own intense responses to a death or deaths. There is now an unwritten etiquette which demands that every such tragic event be marked by public grieving.

But this almost mandatory  requirement to make a public pronouncement of grief can lead to absurdities. An example  can be seen in the way great events are treated in the States of Jersey. In one paragraph, the Bailiff speaks out “to express, on behalf of all Members and for this Assembly, sympathy for the families and friends of those who died in the atrocity in Orlando.”  

And in the next breath, he says: “On a rather lighter note I would simply like to mention that the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations seem to have gone extremely well and I would like to congratulate all those who have been involved in the various celebrations, both the celebrations in St. Helier at the Town Church in the Royal Square and across the Parishes over the weekend.”

There doesn’t seem any awareness that the juxtaposition of sombre grief and joyous rejoicing is somehow incongruous. It is almost as if public figures feel they have to go through the motions of expressing sympathy – not that it is not genuine, it is – but it is not thought out., nor I venture is it necessarily appropriate.

Robert Solomon, in his book “In Defence of Sentimentality”, has this to say about Diana’s death:

“I suspect that many of us found the grieving lamentations for Elvis and Princess Diana inappropriate, if not downright embarrassing, just because there was no prior relationship (despite the indignant denials of the aggrieved). The shared tragedy of a likable young man or woman cut down in the prime of life prompts grief only insofar as the relationship with the griever is something more than vicarious voyeurism.”

He suggests that “grief is about a relationship”, and that as we are onlookers, on the fringe of the tragic, our grief is in danger of becoming narcissistic because we lack that anchor. In the case of Jo Cox, one can understand Jeremy Corbyn feeling the loss, and David Cameron too because “she was one of us”, a fellow MP. But as we move away, the expression becomes less of an expression of loss in a relationship, and more of a superficial gloss. How many of those, especially famous people, who are making statements today actually knew or had heard of Jo Cox?

Zachariah Wells comments on public vigils of mourning that "People will go there to worship their own idea of a person they did not know. They have been invited to do this. It is a form narcissism." Wells adds that “I have a very hard time believing that this kind of "grief" has been earned, nor that it will last longer than the present moment” And Eva Wiseman, asks the question: “The worry is that we're self-identifying, and making a stranger's death all about us. Projecting our own little concerns on to the blankness of a screen.”

The worry is that we're self-identifying, and making a stranger's death all about us.

Direct grief also differs from vicarious grief in longevity. Where there is a relationship of whatever kind broken by death, the other person is always missed, and while intense mourning may diminish, that sense of loss, and that kind of grief never goes away. Vicarious grief on the other hand, fades, because there is no direct relationship to sustain it. Nowhere is this more apparent that the collective vicarious grief at the death of Princess Diana, which vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

By contrast as Dr Leeat Granek explains, grief over the loss of a relationship goes on:

“Having spent years studying grief, and being a griever myself now entering her tenth year of loss, I know that grief does not work this way. It is not an event in time. It is not even just an emotional response to a loss. It is a process that changes us permanently but also constantly as we ourselves change and grow. In this sense, grief is just like love. It is not something that happens once and goes away — it is something that evolves, expands and contracts, and changes in shape, depth, and intensity as time goes on.”

Elizabeth Wilson, writing in 1997, sums up the contrast between direct and vicarious forms of grief:

“In the week after Princess Diana’s death I was baffled and deeply alienated by the public response to the horrifying accident, and its amplification by the mass media. I could neither understand nor share the apparent outpouring of grief, nor the explanations thought up by media commentators for the flowers, the poems, the queues and the candles. Of course, I thought it was terribly sad—the death of a young woman and mother when on the threshold, it seemed, of a happier period in her life—but I did not feel I had lost a friend or a member of my family. On the contrary, since a neighbour of mine had just died, I was painfully aware of the difference between the death of someone who actually was a friend and the more ethereal loss of someone known only as a media figure.”

Of course the recent incidents – the murders in Orlando, and the murder of Jane Cox, have also been marked by extreme forms of hatred. And it is only right that we should take cognisance of that, and it is right and proper that statements should be made against those xenophobic forms of hate and prejudice.  And there can be no doubt that we are saddened and shocked  by the deaths of others.

But we should not let that blind us to the fact that unless it leads to change, vicarious grief has often more to do with ourselves and how we feel than those who have perished.

It is understandable that the 9/11 massacre and the bombings in London are so immense that we should mark them. For other events we seen bound up in what appears to be a learned behaviour rather than a natural one., in which we mourn the passing of strangers, and not those whose relationship with us has touched our lives. And the media presentation has a lot to do with this.

As R. Scott Sullender notes in “Pastoral Psychology”:

“Accessing the human innate capacity to empathize, the media invites us to share in the sorrow of others and to bind together in times of collective tragedy. At the same time, the intensity and scope of the public’s exposure to unnatural death might be creating a generation that is actually less sensitive to the needs of others. “

1 comment:

Roisin Pitman said...

Something i have been thinking of for some time Tony. I have noticed a lot of vicarious grief on local facebook posts from people who don't have any connection to the deceased but seem to want to make a comment almost more to be seen to be making it rather than a genuine condolence to someone know to them. As you say, some people make it about then. But that is the narcisistic attitude in the me, me, me society.