Making Exhibitions of Ourselves

Making Exhibitions of Ourselves

A couple of months ago, I drew attention to the phenomenon of Facebook that (to me, anyway) weird internet sensation where everybody and anybody can connect to (or, to use the jargon, `friend') anybody else in the world of virtual chatter; and I argued that, among other things, it witnessed to a world where privacy was no longer considered a virtue, and where everything had to be flaunted for all to see.

Well, I was shocked a couple of weeks ago to switch on my television set one Saturday morning and see the frightful Jade Goody staring at me from the box.  For those who do not know, La Goody first came to fame a few years ago on the British voyeur series, Big Brother, where a group of self-absorbed misfits live in a house together, watched by continual video cameras streaming their antics to a television audience (or `peeping toms' as they used to be known).  La Goody was, I confess, quite a laugh, becoming famous for her stunning ignorance, such as speculating about the location of `East Angular.'  Some years later, she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, a version of the same vacuous `social experiment' (or `freak show' as it used to be known), but this time with a group of misfits drawn from the pages of Hello magazine or the social pages of The Sun.  This time, it was not so much her American level knowledge of geography as her racist abuse of a fellow inmate that landed her in hot water.  Finally, she appeared in the Indian version of Big Brother to prove she was no racist ("Some of my best friends are...." Well you get the picture).  Here she received the news - on air as it happens - that she had terminal cancer.

Overnight, she enjoyed public redemption, and became a very public face for a very horrific diseased.  A life that had seemed to represent the worst vacuousness and stupidity of British society became significant in drawing attention to women's health issues, to cancer, and to the reality of the fact that young lives (I believe she was 27) can be cut tragically short for no apparent reason.   Weeks before her final death, she married her boyfriend; and she sold her story etc. etc., but this time not for personal gain; simply to make sure that her two young sons would be financially secure after the death of their mother.  In the public's eyes at least, a good death atoned for a previously pointless life.

Now, before I go further, let me make it plain that the death of a young mother is a tragedy.  Children lose the person they love most; a partner is left alone; parents are bereaved of a beloved child.   Jade Goody's death was no doubt deeply sad for those who knew her, and who loved her, and whom she loved in return.  There is no question or doubt about that.  What was bizarre, however, was the dramatic outpouring of public grief by people who did not know her at all, as witnessed by the scenes along the route of the funeral, the endless TV coverage of the event and its aftermath, and the newspaper and web treatment of the same.  What is going on in Britain?

The parallels with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, were striking.  There again a young mother died a pointless death, and children were orphaned.  And, my oh my, wasn't there a spontaneous outpouring of public grief.  Coming not so much from the stiff-upper-lip side of English culture as from the `everything I need to know about getting in touch with my feminine side I learned from watching D.I. Jack Regan in action in seventies police series The Sweeney', the Diana-grief phenomenon was a mystery to me and left me cold. I wanted to mow the lawn during the funeral, but my wife banned me from so doing.  What would the neighbours think?? Yet the grief was all so over the top and cringeworthy -- whether it was the mass weeping on the streets of London, the meaningless title `Queen of Hearts', the people who flew in from California `just to be part of it,' Sir Elton John singing at the funeral, or (most incomprehensible of all) the comment by one Scotswoman on the BBC News that she was `going to find it very hard to go back and live in Arbroath after this' (hey, Arbroath may have its faults, but there are worse places.....).  The whole thing looked tacky, embarrassing, superficial, and contrived.

But what was truly fascinating was the false intimacy of the whole thing.  Part of me watched the Diana grief-fest and wanted to scream out `Don't you people have any real problems to worry about?  Have you never been really bereaved of a true loved one?'  Now, as I said above, the death of a young woman is a deeply sad event; but it impacts her children and her close loved ones in a way that it does not impact those who never really knew her.  After all, what had most of those who grieved lost?  Nothing.  A collection of electronic pixels on the television screen.  An image. A photo in a magazine. Somebody that was no more real to them in practical terms than James Bond or the Tooth Fairy.  Yet the media had persuaded people that had never met her that she was an important and intimate player in their lives.  

The same applied to Jade Goody. Again, history repeated itself: a likeable but undeniably dim and virtually talentless woman and loving mother was struck down in her youth, leaving behind two orphaned boys.  A very sad happening.  But for whom?   Is the sadness not trivialized by the way in which vast numbers of others with no real connection to the deceased, muscled in on the family's grief, and used the idioms of mourning and bereavement?

Yet the false intimacy of the deaths of these women was no doubt a function of the way they had chosen to live.  After all, they went out of their way to make exhibitions of their lives at every opportunity.  No-one could forget the secret visits that Diana made to poor and the sick, where the cameras were (coincidentally) always there to capture the event for posterity and Hello magazine; and Goody took all this to the next level, being a contestant on multiple Big Brothers and then having the rapid violence of her final illness catalogued in painful technicolour for all to see.  There were even rumours that she had arranged for her death to be filmed.  These proved untrue; but that they seemed credible at the time is indicative of the culture which she represented and to which we all now belong.

Much is written these days about the surveillance society, about the fear of having `them' --usually the government - watching our every move and thus restricting our freedom and invading our privacy.    Ironically, with the rise of celebrity culture, the crass confessionals of the Oprah show and its amateur equivalents on Youtube,  reality TV, blogs, Facebook, and now all the twitterati on Twitter, it is us ourselves who have destroyed privacy and have collapsed the difference between what is public and what is private and what is worthy of attention and what is mind-bogglingly trivial.  And, apparently, we love it and cannot get enough of it, if the news headlines and websites and the direction of capital investment on television shows is any indicator.  If you've got it, apparently, then you should flaunt it for as many people to see as possible.

The results of this kind of culture are clear and unpleasant.   In our world of exhibitionists, a sense of entitlement rules the day.  Everyone with a webcam or a modem has a right to be heard or seen saying or doing whatever they choose.  Standards of basic decency disappear: the mainstreaming of pornography is only the most obvious example of the cultural erosion of the notions of what is and is not decent public behaviour and the closely related concept of privacy.  And, as both Diana and Jade indicate in their separate ways, style inevitably triumphs over substance, and the beautifully or shockingly mediocre beats hard work and talent every time.

But, perhaps worst of all, all sense of what is important goes out of the window, especially in the realm of human relationships.  The most extreme example of this is death itself.  When thousands of people who never knew Diana or Jade, and were never even affected by them in any way other than a warm fuzzy feeling they would get when looking at their pictures on the TV - when such people, I say, can break down and weep at their deaths and use language of personal bereavement to describe their feelings, then true mourning and grief and bereavement have been reduced, if not to nothing, then certainly to next to nothing.    And, what is worse, because they did not know the bereaved, then whatever the rhetoric they use, the bottom line is that their mourning is all about them and not about the one who has died or about those who are truly bereaved and left distraught at the graveside.

If relationships with others are to be at all meaningful, then they need to embody levels of privacy, and concepts of decency and modesty.  To be truly bereaved requires that one is first truly intimate or connected to person.  My relationship with my wife is unique; that we do not have sexual relations with others, or flaunt our own for others to see, is vital to the reality and importance and uniqueness of that relationship.  The same goes in different ways with friendships and other human relationships.  Privacy, decency, modesty are critical, and the levels of these in each relationship determine the nature and importance of that relationship.  The whole culture of modern media, from television to internet, is designed to put strain on, if not completely abolish, these basic concepts that are so important.   Dare I suggest that one of the battles of the next decade for Christians is not so much how we can use the new media for spreading the gospel, but how we can stop the new media from destroying those things which seem so germane to the normal Christian life as the Bible envisages it, where people matter more than pixels and, no, not everybody has a right to know and see and do everything.

Last summer, I stood by my father's coffin.  There were only eleven of us at the funeral: my mother, myself, my two sisters and their partners, my oldest niece, and dad's two brothers and their wives.  It was just as dad had instructed it should be: a private, modest and decent affair with nobody present except those who really cared; no tears except those drawn from wells dug deep into the lives we had shared with him over many years; no stranger there to trivialize the moment by trying to steal a share in our grief.  We grieved truly, and still do every day.     But where are the thousands who lined the route of Diana's funeral, or even those of Jade Goody?  Already they have moved on to a new website or tabloid headline or reality TV show.  For them, everything changed; and then, two days later, it was back to business as usual.  In my mind, however, I remain standing by my father's coffin.