Posts Tagged ‘death’

Death in the Multimedia Age

In Opinion on July 22, 2011 at 1:05 PM

Watching real world tragedies unfold as played out by the Tweeting and Facebooking masses is a peculiar modern phenomenon. Trying to condense abstract thoughts, memories and moral judgements into small, virtual soundbites is an odd, even dichotomous, meeting of the ultimate with the transient. As this weekend’s deaths of over 76 Norwegians and Amy Winehouse sheds light on, it seems a phenomenon we’re still getting to grips with. It’s certainly one we’re very divided over.

Obviously, the discussion of what is ‘too soon’ and indeed ever ‘acceptable’ with regards to death has been going on for centuries. But I feel the debate is not only highlighted by the emergence of social media, but it’s also been shaped by it. Firstly, obviously in this ‘connected age’ people hear about the news faster than ever before, so Tweetbookers (amalgamated for ease) somewhat become news sources in themselves. People ‘reporting’ news largely unfettered by editorial rigour or possible institutional bias is either a very progressive, egalitarian idea or a potentially toxic one (or a bit of both). I think we’ve seen a lot to, respectively, support both schools of thought.

Some it seems are so eager to quickly make an ‘insightful’ and/or ‘humourous’ statement through a status or a fan page that they take all nuance out of their opinion, whether unwittingly or intentionally. This then can have a very cyclical polarising effect, as many ‘virtual vultures’ pore over the cybernetic remnants of the passed (myself included), glibly approving and passing on statements due to clever rhetoric or wordplay.

Yes, of course, people point out the supposed flaws in opinions, but these people are always subject to the criticism of ‘troll’, the call to ‘calm down’ and the point that ‘GOD! It was just a joke/statement’. Even, to the rather uncouth internet cliché: ‘arguing on the internet is like running in the special Olympics. Even if you win, you’re still retarded’. Many however, including myself, think such big ethical questions usually cannot easily be reduced to the short, snappy conclusions prevalent in ‘micro- blogging’. If indeed they can be reduced to anyhard and fast conclusions. Therefore many voices of moderation in the middle-ground get lost in the rubble. Such voices understandably decide to resist posting opinion or commenting on other supposedly stupid opinions (lest the potential virtual battle), where they may not do if the same issues arose face-to-face. Or because they are torn on issues, they don’t have the often irrational passion which typifies extreme views.  When such voices do speak up, the general trend is that those on either end of the argument gain some perspective and are brought somewhat back into the proverbial middle; ‘o.k…I see that…’ etc.. I have been called a ‘bloody, woolly Guardian reader’ for it, but I am very much in defence of sitting on the fence. Alike Tim Minchin…

This polarisation was a phenomenon I also found true of the last election campaign in the UK; the majority of statuses regarding it were radically for or against a party, usually against with brash statements such as ‘Cameron/Clegg/Brown will take this country to the dogs!’ The prevalence (22,802,387 Youtube views) and influence of ‘Obama girl’ seems to confirm my hunch that things are even more so over the pond.  With social media to a large extent replacing traditional forms of receiving information (TV news, newspapers etc.), I think this theory is an important one to consider and bear in mind.

I have only come across one opinion saying the incident in Norway is anything other than a ‘tragedy’. This belongs to right-wing, American, religious zealot Glenn Beck. Heclaimed on his bemusingly popular radio show: “There was a shooting at a political camp, which sounds a little like the Hitler youth, or, whatever (sic). I mean, who does a camp for kids that’s all about politics. Disturbing.” Evidently, he’s unaware of the arguable inherent hypocrisy in publicly broadcasting his political views to the masses. This is, too, the same man that likens himself to Israeli Nazi hunters in his fight against progressives (or “Crime Inc.”) such as Obama and Al Gore: “I’m going to find these people that have done this to our country and expose them. I don’t care if they’re in nursing homes.” I will thus give him the dignity of no more of the publicity which he obviously so desperately craves.

No, it is the death of Amy Winehouse which has, in my experience, split Tweetbookers (as with the death ofJackass prankster Ryan Dunn did about a month ago). What separates these deaths from those in Norway in causation is the somewhat ‘ill-advised’ actions taken by the two, however mitigating the circumstances – Amy Winehouse through her drug addiction and Ryan Dunn through crashing a Porsche while well over the respective speed and drink drive limits. (There was a passenger in Dunn’s car at the time who also died). As with Dunn’s passing, it seems that the opinion of the online community over Amy Winehouse’s death has fallen into three general, although overlapping, categories: the RIP-ers, the ‘she deserved it’-ers and the self-styled comedians.

The crowd offering straight-forward, sincere ‘RIP’s, eulogies and dedications are fairly self-explanatory and uncontroversial. Although some argue social media is not an appropriate platform for the expression of deep personal feelings, it would take a very cold heart to decry this group’s undeniably well-meaning messages.

There was then a scale from these posts all the way up to those asserting that ‘she deserved it’. Although Amy Winehouse probably ultimately died from her decisions (the ‘choice’ or ‘illness’ debate is too complex to detail here), these reactions didn’t sit too well with me. It is no doubt a huge grey area, but I thought the stronger reactions in this contingent hinted at vindictiveness, even smugness. The satirical video below even sprang to mind.  Some reacted to this sombre, even tragic event along the personally reasonable lines of sensitively saying it’s a cautionary tale. What purpose, though, can saying little more than ‘she deserved it’ serve, now she is no longer with us to hear, and maybe act upon, these words?  I think this can only now serve to make people feel vindicated in their non-drug abuse. Or even, feel ‘big’ about it, even though I sense this was no one’s main intention. I’m sure the vast majority of ‘she deserved it’-ers didn’t genuinely think Winehouse deserved death (merely that it’s a cautionary tale), but if this is true, I think they should have taken a step back for just a second to ensure they didn’t misrepresent themselves, if you will (more later).

Also, some such reactions, and some people in almost unwittingly setting up a ‘grief scale’ in comparing Winehouse’s death to the Norwegians’, I feel somewhat constructed straw men to argue against. From the impression I get from her interviews and music, Winehouse didn’t really try to portray herself as a paragon of virtue nor actively try and cultivate around herself the ‘live fast, die young’ rock ‘n’ roll cliché (though, I think it is fair to say this largely happened). Indeed, if anything, I think the opposite is true. Most agree the general tone of her heartfelt, Mercury-nominated Back to Black album, written amidst serious drug problems, is plaintive and honest, often painstakingly so. Granted, its most successful single Rehab exhibits a cocksure refusal to go rehab – an attitude now mocked by many, in hindsight I may add. This isn’t, however, typical of the album from a woman who by almost all accounts was prone to extreme mood swings (she herself claimed to have bi-polar disorder). Other songs on it include the appropriately titled Back to BlackYou Know I’m No Good, Addicted and Wake Up Alone, in which she painstakingly describes her usually futile attempts to stay off drugs.

As for the comparison of the events, regardless of one’s opinion of whether this is acceptable and how the events compare if so, none of those who died asked for this moral comparison between what are unrelated events. I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t want it either. Nor I’m sure would those who knew them personally, for whom I can only imagine the predominant emotions are despair and grief. As such, I wonder who exactly people are trying to argue to in claiming ‘Amy brought it on herself’ and/or comparing the two incidents.

The third broad, vaguely defined category of reactions was that of intended comedy; the type which earns laughs in quarters not just for the wordplay of the jokes themselves, but for having the sheer audacity to ‘go there’. The etiquette of this is tricky for me because on the frequent conflicts between political correctness and freedom of expression, notably ‘banter’, I’m usually of the opinion that freedom of expression/’banter’ should win out. Indeed, I have laughed at, been in quiz teams named for and even I think told my fair share of risqué jokes about the dead. As such, I am by not calling for them to be censored, either by authorities or by the posting individuals in question.

This weekend they just really didn’t sit right with me though. People say ‘it’s just light-hearted banter’ and close-to-the-bone jokes is what make humour, particularly ‘British humour’, so great. And I think they are somewhat right, but aren’t jokes braver if they’re told about living people? By which I mean, people who have the capacity to be offended and answer back with words and actions. Late celebrities (or late anyones) are not afforded this opportunity, especially in the minds of many such as myself who see death as having a certain finality. Even worse, if the ‘joker’ or ’judger’ in question does believe in afterlife, their criticism of the dead usually implies that their idea of the dead’s afterlife is not an altogether happy one.

If you genuinely think it is a funny or joyful occasion that someone died who brought joy to millions and in all likelihood did you no direct ‘wrong’, then you’re entitled to this opinion and the sharing of it (although, personally, unless allied with a very convincing, ‘greater good’ utilitarian argument, you’re a cretin). We live in a free-thinking democracy after all, and arguably one which posthumously ‘Disneyfies’ lives of the deceased (particularly recently deceased). The thing is, I don’t think many, if any, do genuinely believe their expressed opinions or their implications. Many of the jokes even hinge on the knowingness of their risqué nature – ‘draw a line under..’, ‘not overdose on..’ these jokes etc.. I think it’s this ‘tongue-in-cheek’ knowingness that renders the jokes – supposedly – acceptable ‘banter’. Maybe it is. Or is it just a ‘shallow search for satisfaction and ‘likes’ and retweets’?

Social commentators often argue that cyberspace is used by many to selectively screen (literally) ‘positive’ aspects of their life (I for one do this), if not project a persona merely tangentially linked to one’s non-virtual life. This view has life almost as a videogame; with the objectives to ‘collect’ more friends (or ‘friends’) and positive feedback like ‘likes’. Maybe we’re not entirely genuine in our views; just feel that’s what we should be doing. All of the opinions I disliked were in fact from those who I consider to be at least ‘decent’ people. I was/am as much part of it as the next. After seeing Facebook exploding with exaggeration in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s death, I felt so obliged to post something ‘fresh and/or witty’ that this thinking, along with a ‘well done to the captors’, became my very ‘meta’/’dickhead’ status. If we take this phenomenon to be at least somewhat true (you don’t have to), should respect for a recently passed’s life not trump this? I think there’s enough material for banter elsewhere.

Thing is, it’s very, very, easy to share these thoughts now. There is a disproportionate, even unnatural, ease to communicating on social networks to hundreds directly, thousands even millions by proxy (the average number of Facebook friends in the UK is between 130 and 150, much more for the frequent users in the 16-24 demographic). Add detachment, even ‘anonymity’, into the cocktail of this hyper-real, networked world, and you have a medium where relatively extreme views can easily prosper, even if they are not genuine.

For me, the whole scenario is not dissimilar to when someone sincerely and regretfully points out a (supposed) significant flaw in their actions or personality. Bear with me here, people. When someone says in a negative way “I’m so stupid” or “I just can’t do anything”, quite what constructive purpose can it serve to agree with them? None, except a petty ego boost for the mean respondent, I would venture. Now, just as here you would not be expected to reassure the person with outrageous lies, I am not saying that those we did not like/respect in life we should eulogise over in death. However, ‘they deserved it’ comments or jokes about death are as unconstructive as affirmations of one’s own stupidity or inability, and arguably only serve to reflect badly on the person espousing them. The analogy may well be trivial, but I think it is logical. It certainly serves my argument because the social norm in such situations is not to affirm or mock the negative self-judgements. Should it be any different with people who have passed just because they are no longer, physically at least, with us? Shouldn’t we have more compassion than to ‘kick someone when they’re (six feet) down’? The harm may well not be felt directly (especially in the hyper-real worlds fostered by social networks), but I think this makes it worse if anything.

So next time you’re about to post something edgy, maybe think twice about why you are and whether you really believe it, before you hit that ‘like’, ‘share’ or ‘Tweet’ button.

Joel Durston