“I read the news today, oh boy” (The Beatles, A Day In The Life.)
Sometimes watching the news feels like a series of repeated blows to the face: arbitrary, cruel and unrelenting. It gets draining and upsetting, and leaves you fearful of what might come next.
You won’t need me to tell you about the tragedies that have occurred all over the world in the last few days: drought in East Africa, the gunman running amok in Norway, the death of Amy Winehouse and the horrific train crash in China.
For better or worse, social networks have bought us together in ways that allow us to respond to events much more quickly. We are now able to share our reactions in pretty much real-time. Mostly this manifests in a public display of grief or shock but counterproductive and darker elements begin to creep in too. With the famine in Africa came the accusation that the continued revelations in the phone hacking scandal were burying the story. This happened particularly in News International’s remaining papers and especially in a throughly revolting cartoon in The Times. (What the hell has happened to The Times? Ten years ago I remember it being a decent paper, now it really is just The Sun with a posher font.)
With the Norway story, we got all the knee-jerk reactions that come with any act of terrorism these days: the links to Islamists and to previous terror attacks like 9/11 and 7/7. The Sun again hit hard in its editorial, striking forceful blows that later emerged to be entirely without foundation. There is an excellent blog post here about how The Sun had to retract pretty much the entirety of Saturday’s editorial once the facts had emerged. It is, of course, no surprise to see The Sun stir up such a load of shit.
With Amy Winehouse, the problem was more the instant appearance of sick jokes. These made fun of a woman who had just died and were circulating within hours of her death (perhaps sooner, I was out at the time of the announcement). Elsewhere, there was clucking tone and complaints that feeling sympathy for the death of a talented artist following a prolonged period of personal difficulty was somehow invalid after the Norway tragedy.
These comments and distasteful jokes may often simply be trolling or attention seeking. Sometimes they are the work of an imbecile who claims that they are attacking political correctness. The trouble is that there really is no such thing as political correctness, just the decision to treat other human beings with the same dignity and respect that one would expect for oneself. Irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation or history of drug addiction (among other things), no human being deserves to have their untimely death mocked or belittled.
If the young people who were the victims in Norway had all been drug addicts undergoing treatment, would we be less horrified by their deaths? Would we make moralistic pronouncements that if they hadn’t done drugs in the first place it never would have happened? I don’t think we would. Mind you, I am still bracing myself for an ‘opinion’ piece from one of the Mail’s dog whistling talking heads on Monday morning saying something monstrous about how being involved with socialism is what got those young Norwegians shot.
The other fundamental misconception at work is that there is some sort of algebra of misery and suffering that can allow us to order and sift through these tragic events, allow us to declare one more important than the other and assess the worth of expressing our incomprehension and our sympathy. These beliefs work from the assumption that our reserves of sympathy are somehow finite and need to be managed, that they should only be used for the correct situations. This is of course nonsense: you can feel as shitty about any of the events of recent days as you like. It is your choice and yours alone.
Personally, I have found myself soul-searching about whether it is necessary to be as engaged with the world as to keep up with all these things that are going on. The phone hacking scandal has produced day after day of surreal political discourse and has made me feel like everything has spun out of control. Then there was this weekend. But no. The head in the sand approach doesn’t save you from anything or protect you from anything. Ignorance and fear produce more of the world’s problems than ever before, as has the ability to look the other way. It is only by confronting head on the issues that these tragedies raise - and by engaging one another about our hopes, fears, difficulties and aspirations - that we can hope to make the world into a place where such things never happen again.