Precarious lives and public grief

How we publicly commemorate the dead – mark, that is, the process by which the living become ancestors – has always been complex, shaped in different places and at different times by any number of historical, cultural, and political factors. Fuelled equally by the burgeoning cult of celebrity and the advent of mass media technologies, especially satellite communication, public mourning became globalised in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and no less politicised than in previous epochs. Believing that they would undermine the political establishment by encouraging open and public mourning, Plato wanted poets banned from the Republic, just as the Bush administration issued a blackout on media coverage of returning coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq for fear of stirring up anti-war sentiment.

But under what conditions, other than renown, is it possible for the media to provoke displays of global empathy or mourning for people we have never met? The question is an especially fraught one at a time when mainstream media has lost much of its authority, and the prevalence of social media platforms has created new ways in which public grief can be expressed and policed.

In The Spectatorship of Suffering, Lilie Chouliaraki proposes a hierarchy of human life worthy of our pity and grief as seen through the eyes of western mainstream media. At one end are the victims of the September 11 attacks – ‘privileged objects of compassion and care’ because ‘just like us’ – and at the other, the ‘Bangladeshi sufferer’ – erased of human subjectivity and lacking the cultural characteristics necessary to kindle an empathic response.

In her analysis of the September 11 attacks in Frames of War, Judith Butler suggests a further hierarchy that applies to those victims alone:

After the attacks of 9/11, we encountered in the media graphic pictures of those who died, along with their names, their stories, the reaction of their families. Public grieving was dedicated to making these images iconic for the nation, which meant of course that there was considerably less public grieving for non-US nationals, and none at all for illegal workers.

This last category of victims falls under Butler’s definition of ‘lives that are not quite lives… “destructible”, “ungrievable” [because] already lost or forfeited.’ In this analysis, it is not the media alone that shapes our responses to global suffering but also larger cultural norms that are often of a racist and nationalistic character. It is these norms that, in effect, ‘frame the frame’, negating certain kinds of response in advance of the media representation of suffering.

The debate about whose lives matter to us in the west and whose do not now plays out regularly on social media. The sequence of events has become predictable: a tragedy or atrocity takes place in a western country, or claims predominately western victims (such as the 2002 Bali bombings), resulting in an outpouring of public grief. Rallying hashtags proliferate, as do themed profile pictures and images of buildings lit up with the national colours of the affected country. From these, where applicable, flows condemnation of the (alleged) perpetrators. Finally, a backlash follows, driven by commentators outraged at the uneven, western-centric distribution of public grief in a world full of suffering. These commentators – whose mode of address is always ‘why do you care about this, and not that?’ – often point to a concurrent, neglected mass casualty event, such as the devastating Beirut terror attack that preceded last November’s massacres in Paris by just a few hours.

This empathy gap is not new, but doubtless social media has had the effect of underscoring its existence. In turn, the saturation of often decontextualised or aestheticised stories of suffering across the breadth of contemporary media has produced compassion fatigue, a term initially applied to trauma workers in the 1950s who had experienced a gradual loss of empathy with their patients, but is more familiar today as a reflection of the numbing ubiquity of news of mass casualty events. (Psychologists, using the term ‘collapse of compassion’, have borne out Stalin’s famous dictum that one death is a tragedy and one million a statistic – counterintuitively, it seems, the higher the death toll, the less capacity we have to care.)

For the detached observer, it is what Chouliaraki calls the ‘modal imagination’ that can pierce the fog of suffering that surrounds us, enabling ‘spectators to imagine something that they have not experienced themselves as being possible for others to experience.’ While this is no guarantee of agency – the important ability of spectators to move from a position of knowing to one where we can act on what we know – the activation of the modal imagination can mitigate compassion fatigue by, to use a familiar image, placing us for a moment in the shoes of the sufferers.

Following the attacks in Beirut and Paris, several commentators theorised that a main cause of the divergent responses was the inability of Western spectators to imagine themselves under attack in Beirut – a city that for many produces no associations except a generalised picture of war and turmoil – while Paris is intimately familiar to most Westerners, if not through real-world experiences then via the city’s often romanticised evocation in countless books and films.

In the days after the Paris attacks, I couldn’t bring myself to admonish friends for their inattention to the massacre in Beirut. How could I in good faith, when I had had an almost bodily reaction to Paris – a city I have visited, and had revered for a long time sight unseen, such are the power of its mythologies – and virtually none at all beyond a sort of cold reckoning to Beirut? It strikes me that to dismiss such reactions as merely an individual failing is to misunderstand the nature of many things: mass media, politics, and, finally, grief itself, which does not emerge from objective facts but from what the heart speaks.

However noble the intent, the policing of grief runs the risk of occluding a truth at once more noteworthy and more lamentable than that people respond to different tragedies in different ways: that how we memorialise the dead is always subject to a structural politics that precedes the news itself, and informs our reading of it. Our goal should not be to ‘call out’, to invalidate people’s complex responses to suffering, but to foster a cosmopolitan spectatorship that acknowledges, in the face of relentless, dehumanising politicking, that all human life is valuable. As Butler writes in Frames of War: ‘we each have the power to destroy and to be destroyed, and … we are bound to one another in this power and precariousness. In this sense, we are all precarious lives.’

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Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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