I was in Buxton on Black Saturday. My friends and I stood in the front yard of their cousins’ house, almost as if we were in a trance, watching the trees explode as the fire blasted its way down the ridge towards us. There was supposed to be a party and we were supposed to be getting drunk, but the bush was a blistering inferno and cars were speeding away down the main road towards Alexandra. It wasn’t until a police car with its lights flashing stopped at the house – ‘If you’re going to go, you need to leave now’ – that the spell was broken and the reality set in.
I was working in television at the time, technical work on the news and current affairs bulletins for channels Nine and Seven. When I finally got back to Melbourne that Sunday night, I had 24 hours before my next shift. Instead of taking time to parse the experience, I went straight back to work and was confronted by double-length news and current affairs bulletins, and the transfer feeds playing out clip after clip of people crying, death toll statistics, fire, blackened bush and more fire. But if I was traumatised by anything it was by the absolutely self-centred disregard the media had for those people whose grief was personal and intimate. Driven by ratings and by competition, by the desire to capitalise on every scrap of human drama, the tabloid television networks respected almost nobody’s privacy or right to mourn in their own way: they pounced on every sensation without hesitation or regard for anything but the most dramatic shot or heartfelt utterance and their ability to be the first with something new. I heard stories about people getting into fights with cameramen. Another friend’s parents’ deaths were listed in the paper before the family had even had a chance to let all their loved ones know. It was impossible to flick on the TV without TRAGEDY splashing one in the face, and after awhile it became hard to believe the media were capable of functioning any other way. I could do nothing about it, and it made me wild-eyed with fury.
The family of the friends I had been staying with had been scattered throughout the region that day, and they had been beside themselves with worry. I wasn’t scared but that’s not a boast; I was perturbed for a long time afterwards about how peculiarly calm I had been. It took me the better part of a year to write about my experiences, even though I understood that technically I had a legitimate right to do so, because I had an overwhelming sense that whole day that I was an intruder. This is not my place. I should not be here.
Public grief is not the same as personal grief, and mourning sickness – the kind of ostentatiously public grieving that springs up around disasters, celebrity deaths or high-profile crimes – is only exacerbated as technology advances. If my favourite rock star dies, I can now tell 1500 people how sad I am about it on social media within moments of the news breaking. I can have conversations on Facebook about how upset it has made me and everyone can read and comment on my expression of this. There is some possibility of this post being interpreted as unnecessarily callous or cruel, so I think it’s important to be clear that I don’t believe the feelings expressed by the general public in the wake of these events are necessarily false. I think we have the right to feel them, and to express them. But I do believe that the following is true and that it bears repeating: mourning sickness, this public grief that it’s so easy to partake in, is not the same as personal grief, and we would do well to think more carefully about the difference between the two – the difference between actually knowing a person and experiencing their loss, and treading on the periphery, or being swept up in the wake of the public narrative. Because there are politics to our performances of grief, and they are most especially stark when there is an agent involved – a perpetrator of harm.
When Jill Meagher went missing last September, the public mourning machine went into overdrive. The story had currency in the media because it tapped into real fears held by real people (no matter how rare the actual realisations of those fears were), and because what happened to her was truly heinous. Anyone with a contingent of Melburnians in their Twitter or Facebook feeds could reasonably expect to find it clouded by that grief over the two or three weeks in which it was still headline news. In one respect, such grief worked to pull people together in unexpected ways. Before that, for example, absolutely nobody would have expected to see 5000 people at a Reclaim the Night rally, an event that had been steadily dwindling in attendance and only the previous year had struggled to pull triple figures. In another way, however, it made discussion about the politics of the issue extremely difficult.
Because social media is media. It gives us audiences before it gives us friends; our status updates function as broadcasts and performances before they are conversations, and when we pump it full of our rhapsodic and self-indulgent displays of public grief as if we were experiencing personal loss, we are, on a micro level, doing exactly what the tabloid television stations do in the wake of events like Black Saturday. When those performances become fused with our politics, we perpetuate the idea that our political responses must be accompanied by performed emotion, regardless of our proximity to the event or the people involved. And worse, that this emotion is a necessary legitimating factor for our political attention and political decisions.
This is hugely problematic. Not because grief is necessarily unwarranted, but because what is a politically progressive response to an issue and what will give us emotional catharsis are often wildly different, and yet we slide so quickly from one to the next. The grief of millions of Americans following September 11 was the single biggest justification for the last decade of war: millions more deaths and endless cycles of mourning and retribution. It is difficult to feel much in the way of sorrow for the juvenile perpetrators of the Steubenville rapes but, as Elizabeth O’Shea mentions in a comment on her latest Overland piece (which is worth reading in its own right), the fact that two kids have been convicted and will spend half their lives on a sex offender’s register is not a great outcome either. Grief of course spurs the barrage of public loathing sent Adrian Bailey’s way but when all we can hear are cries of anguish and howls for retribution it becomes nigh impossible to talk about things like fair trials, poverty, drug abuse, social alienation, racism and all of those other broadscale issues that underpin these individual acts of gendered violence. And the more we personalise how we approach the politics of those issues – the more the politics become about our grief and anger at this man – the less space we have to consider whether our political responses are socially progressive and objectively just.
These are not easy problems to solve. They’re certainly not as easy as firing off a status update about how horrible the case is, or having a loud and public conversation about the many ways in which we, as witnesses, feel this awful event has affected us. And our emotional responses are not necessarily unwarranted – they are, after all, part of our capacity for empathy and social understanding. Our righteous anger can be fuel for progressive political action because it can energise us and sharpen our focus. But grief is not always the definitive ethical or political marker we wish it to be, and if we spend too long on publicly feeling we short-circuit our ability to publicly act.