With the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman this week there has been an outpouring of emotion, matched quickly by an outpouring of sniffy commentary about how such public displays of mourning for celebrities are, if not self-serving, then at the very least somewhat performative.
Heck, when President Obama became emotional discussing lives lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting whilst outlining the incredibly minor directives he was able to pass in relation to American gun laws, the commentary of his opponents was such as to suggest his tears were genuinely false (he was hiding an onion, apparently). Or if not false, then unequal; where was this emotion when it came to the victims of the Paris attack? Surely if you feel a certain way about one thing, you must feel equally about another similar but different thing, they thundered!
This brings us to the other strain of commentary that erupted this week. Commentary that focuses on the Righteous Mournability Scale (RMS); that people are fools to mourn Bowie or that bloke from Harry Potter because they are not also mourning for those killed this week in Indonesia or Istanbul, or those scores of women killed week-in, week-out in our national and international shame.
This particularly dismissive form of (usually leftist) commentary would dash your emotions on the rocks of the unutterable horror that is the modern world, where only a sliver of the atrocities we as humans commit against one another are revealed to us on a daily basis, but still more than we could ever have tears for. These commentators would damn you for not crying every last tear you had for causes they deemed more worthy than that fella with the funny eyes.
(As an aside, sometimes extreme displays of public mourning are an established part of the process in many parts of the world. But many commentators would have you ignore the funny customs of the foreigners even as they damned you for not mourning their deaths. Because you’re a racist, obviously.)
So, the logical conclusion of this week’s back and forth is that, from now on it would be much better if we all agreed that we should never mourn. Because whatever grief we feel, real or confected, cannot be measured against the grief of the world and the state of its’ people.
And of course, it’s manifestly ridiculous to mourn someone you don’t know. Bowie, Rickman, the ten people who died in Istanbul, the six people who have died on our roads so far this year… They’re all people, sure, but they’re not people we all know, so mourning any of them would seem to be completely pointless. Unless you knew them personally and, when you woke up each morning with the weight of grief sitting on your chest, you, with clear eyes and a sensible bearing, acknowledged that the way you feel in that given moment is but a drop in the ocean of international grief.
But grief is not rational. Nor are people. Are some people mourning celebrities because they loved them, and because their work spoke to them, and because they felt a true emotional connection to them? Yes. Are some people just going along for the ride? Absolutely. Social media is designed for the one-in-all-in form of public interaction.
The death of David Bowie is not a tragedy, in the classic sense. He was sixty-nine, lived a long life full of achievement, creativity, success, love and adoration. He was white, he had cancer and he died. The sum of these things does not equal the sum of a black kid shot in the street for holding a water pistol.
But it shouldn’t be a matter of scale. Emotion isn’t a matter of scale; it’s a matter of emotion – an endless well of conflicting feelings and contradictory impulses. And I would argue that the only way we as people can deal with these endless peaks and troughs is to work through our feelings together.
Two hundred years ago, we might have lived in a world made up of small communities, be they defined by geography, religion, education, employment, whatever. And we would have been guided by our community’s feelings about certain issues; because whilst we live in world that allows us to express our opinions freely we do not, despite what people sometimes assume, always know what those opinions are. If a tragedy befell our community, we would grieve with our community. We would take guidance from our peers, and from our leaders.
One hundred years ago our ideas of community may have broadened further, but the way it operated in times of trauma may not have changed drastically. For example, there is no such thing as ‘national mourning’, because any diverse nation cannot share a single emotion, but the label is helpful for those people who aren’t sure how to feel about a situation. It can guide them, and allow them a space in which to sort out their own feelings.
Today social media has allowed us to incorporate a sense of specific community on our lives. We may still go to church or engage in our neighborhoods, but we choose to interact with the communities we identify specifically with online. And in doing so we may, in times of public mourning, sort through our feelings with people who feel exactly the same way we do. We choose whom we go into the street with, and light candles with, and hold hands with; in a virtual sense.
(The flaw here is that public mourning, as played out on social media with peers, will always include those who do not share your feelings, and may dismiss them in the ways described above or in some other way.)
So, should you write a weepy eulogy for Bowie, including your personal sketches of his many personae through the 20th Century? Post a clip of Rickman in Galaxy Quest? Yes. If it makes you feel better. Heck, even if it doesn’t make you feel better, you should still do it. And even if you’re only doing it because you also want a little attention, that’s fine. Because someone else who is struggling with how they feel about this week might take some solace from it. It might help someone else, not just yourself, feel that the way they feel this week isn’t in isolation. (I mean, honestly, this last thousand words is just me trying to work out how I feel about this shit.)
And what of those we describe in the modern nomenclature as ‘the haters’? It would seem unhelpful to try and decide whose grief is more legitimate. It would seem unhelpful to dismiss the mourning of a celebrity as less real. Yes, the world is shithouse place; but people feel the way they feel. And in acknowledging that the world is awful and if we were to be truly fair we’d never stop rocking and sobbing at the horror of it all, we must also acknowledge that entertainers allow us a respite from it all.
And in mourning them, do we not also mourn the loss of the better parts of this shitty world?