At 15:27 on Monday 15th April, horrific scenes unfurled at the Boston Marathon. Runners were struggling up the final straight after a grueling five hours, when two bombs went off on Boylston Street, just short of the finish line. Those injured and even killed in the blast were innocent civilians, many of whom were running the race in aid of charity. It was a story that was not only a human disaster, but also one that tugged at the heartstrings on a personal level. We all know people who have run marathons, the victims were no different to them. It was a relatable catastrophe.
In the aftermath of the disaster, for whom there is no direct suspect at time of writing, the world of Twitter and the press in general went into overdrive. Conspiracy theories started 15 minutes after the first blast went off, with everyone somehow using the disaster to affirm their beliefs that a certain terror cell was going to eventually target the US again. This, in itself led one person to comment that “Twitter does its best work in the first five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the twelve hours after that”, a statement that it is difficult to argue with.
But then came the grief. And the pseudo grief. And the pious sympathy. The hashtag #prayforBoston became unavoidable. And that is what really got me annoyed. Why on earth does everyone feel the need to jump on the bandwagon of every sadness, no matter how personal it is?
The tragedy that befell Boston on Monday afternoon was undeniable. I myself saw the news and felt sorry for the victims and their families. It must be indescribably awful for you, a friend or a family member to be caught up in something like that and my thoughts were with them. However thoughts were all that I was providing.
Unlike the rest of the world, apparently, I wasn’t inclined to take to social networking and lay down a mawkish statement of exactly how sorry I was for them, or indeed telling my friends that they should “pray for Boston”.
While I’m sure these messages are often done with the best of intentions, I’m afraid that there is a massive undertone of ‘person trying to feel a bit better about themselves by making others think they are the caring type’.
Grief should be a personal thing. It is an emotion for fuck’s sake. It is entirely subjective. This is the way it has been since the fall of the Roman Empire, where rich families would hire grievers to attend their relative’s funerals as a status symbol. This is how the British “stiff upper lip” came about, we were unflappable and unemotional in the face of adversity. It was widely perceived to be a strong character trait.
However, ever since the death of Diana we seem to have become obsessed with the notion that we should all be wailing and gnashing our teeth from the rooftops at the slightest hint of tragedy.
At Diana’s death, the Queen was essentially bullied into a PDA (Public Display of Agony) by the frankly extraordinary level of public grieving. While Diana had, let’s face it, not exactly towed the party line as far as the Royal Family went, it is absurd to think that the Queen wasn’t saddened by her one-time daughter-in-law’s tragic passing. She probably shed a tear in private when she heard the news. But this wasn’t enough for the public. No, the notion of grief had changed. We wouldn’t be happy until she was throwing used tissues down from the balcony of Buckingham Palace like some sort of regally-induced snowstorm.
Fast forward a few years and the whole national identity has changed. We have become a nation of ghoulish despondency-mongers. The very public demise of Jade Goody through cancer (again, a scenario that sadly all-too-many of us can relate to on a personal level), brought unprecedented levels of public grieving. Here was a woman who, just five years previously, had been originally a public joke (owing to her stupidity) and then a national pariah after her quite vicious (and supposedly racially-motivated) attack on Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty in the Big Brother house. But she was famous, and hence she was public property. So when she died at the tragically young age of 27 in 2009, the public went into full-on lockdown grief mode, with thousands of people making a pilgrimage to Essex to lay flowers at her gates.
These days it is not enough to just feel sorry for someone. You have to make a grand production of it. It’s a pretty sick concept, not dissimilar to making a charitable donation and then bragging about how much you’ve given. If you’re not seen to be actively mourning for absolutely anything, then you are a heartless bastard who obviously couldn’t give two shits about them in the first place. In fact you couldn’t give two shits about anyone other than yourself. In fact you’re probably the sort of person who is responsible for these tragedies in the first place. You bastard.
The trouble with this way of thinking is that we have no way of reacting when something genuinely personal happens to us. We’ve jumped on so many bandwagons that when we ARE the bandwagon, we don’t know what to do. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if personal sentiments like #prayforgrandad were popping up left, right and centre all over Twitter. Which is totally, totally retarded.
In the last ten years I have seen people who I knew and loved pass away. Whether elderly relations or friends I have felt enormous sadness in passing, but that has been my PERSONAL grief. It has come from the heart and been passed on in person, whether through tears or prayers. I have not felt the need to wallpaper the internet with my sadness.
Public displays of grief are horrible, snowballing events that lack anything beyond skin-deep sincerity and are more about being perceived to be doing the right thing. You end up with absurd situations like this in Liverpool (I defy you to deny that Boris Johnson was right when he described them as “wallowing in mawkish self-pity”…), where a shrine was erected around the site where a human foetus was found in the street. After several cards and bunches of flowers were left at the site, it transpired that the “foetus” was in fact a chicken carcass.
What happened in Boston on Monday was terrible, however slapping #prayforBoston at the end of a tweet, while stating how sorry you are, is not going to help anyone. It is entirely normal to feel sorry for people in these situations. But keep it to yourself. If you feel the need to do more, why not make a donation to the Boston ambulance service? However don’t then tell everyone how big it was. Especially not on Twitter.
By Harry Harland