Noisily refusing to have an opinion is in vogue right now, and I can’t wait for it to go out again.
Remember back in November, after the massacre in Paris, when most of Facebook put an overlay of the French flag on their profile pictures? I didn’t do this. I felt awful for the people who had suffered and died; but then I started calculating whether I felt sadder, the same amount of sad, or less sad about France than I did about other massacres going on in the world, and whether I should consider changing my profile picture to commemorate one of those, instead . . .
Then I felt incredibly gross for having those thoughts, and left my profile picture alone.
However, I didn’t go around muttering imprecations against all the French flags, or boldly taking a stand as flag free.
I assumed that my friends had all different reasons for flagifying their pictures. Some people, undoubtedly, were doing it simply out of peer pressure: everyone’s doing it, and therefore I will, too.
Some people were undoubtedly doing it as a form of “virtue signalling” — declaring to the world, “Behold, I possess the correct political and emotional response to this crisis.”
And some undoubtedly just felt sad and bad and mad and wanted to do something, and changing your profile picture is doing something (if not much).
People should be allowed to display grief. We don’t have to join in, but it’s only humane to assume that grief is real, and to respect it as real by not complaining about people grieving in public. At least not right away!
When David Bowie died the other day, a lot of writers (including me) wanted to say something about him. It’s a normal, human thing to do. We loved his music, and it’s fitting to acknowledge his long and influential shadow across several genres of popular culture.
It only took an hour or two before the grief police showed up and began issuing citations for insincere suffering and lemming-like behavior. Several people felt the need, within hours of hearing that a man was dead, to tell the world that they didn’t care that he was dead. One woman explained,
“We’ve been too busy building a family to know who David Bowie is.”
Yes, well, in the time it took her to write that comment, she could have been looking one of her children in the eyes and saying, “I love you.” But she didn’t! And now it’s too late! Thanks a lot, dead David Bowie!
But seriously, what’s going on with all the grief shaming? Why would someone even bother to do it? Even if someone else’s grief really is insincere, who cares? What kind of sense does it make to register indifference?
It’s a good question whether we’re talking about grief, or anything, really. Why bother to say, “Everyone’s watching football today, but I don’t care about football!” or “Everyone’s excited about Star Wars, but not me!”
One reason we do it is that we find it harder and harder to believe that our experience is not The Experience. Social media has the potential to make us more open to each other, but it’s only made things worse, with its secret groups and filters and algorithms. It’s so easy to find people who do agree with us, even about the most minute, inconsequential things, and we’re so constantly encouraged to label ourselves as fans of this, followers of that, and members of the other, that it feels like an affront when we meet someone who doesn’t agree.
The other reason is pernicious hipsteritis: we assume any widely-shared experience must be inferior. I’m too old for this. Aren’t you? I’m secure in my tastes. I don’t have to disdain something just because it’s popular, and I can have an opinion that’s similar to other people’s opinions, and yet I shall not die. It’s okay to join in the crowd sometimes. It’s also okay not to join in the crowd, and just quietly go about my business.
One more reason is that we’re tired of being jerked around and told what to feel. We want to hear the actual consequential news, and don’t want to be browbeaten into generating a strong emotion about something we’ve only barely heard of. Okay, fine. But remember that there’s The Media, which is in the business of manipulating our brains, and there’s other, regular old people, whose opinions now get presented alongside the slick, polished, calculated stories generated by Fox or MSNBC. So when we sneer, “He’s dead? Who cares?” we may think that we’re striking back at some heartless media mogul, and retaining some emotional independence, but we’re also striking out at other victims of that same mogul.
It’s rude to make a point of being indifferent about something that other people care about; but being noisily indifferent about someone’s death goes beyond rudeness. When someone dies and people are sad about it, you don’t have to be sad. You don’t have to care at all. It’s our minimal Catholic obligation to pray, “May his soul and the soul of all the faithful departed rest in peace,” but beyond that, you can have no reaction whatsoever.
What you shouldn’t do is be a jerk about it right away. If you don’t care, and never saw the point of the dead person’s career, and think he’s overrated, or want to calculate the odds of him eeking into purgatory, or blame him for your son’s current career as a waxing technician, and you feel like you really must say something, then go ahead . . . later. Not while the body’s still warm.
Further reading: Max Lindenman made a similar, subtler point in his admirably shorter post, In Defense of “Sob-Signalling”