Tears of a crowd

Patrick West’s Conspicuous Compassion is a snapshot album of the rise of public mourning rituals.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Conspicuous Compassion, Patrick West, Civitas, £7.50.

Patrick West, spiked columnist, freelance journalist, and, lest I be accused of playing down a conflict of interests, a sometime drinking partner of mine, is no fan of today’s culture of ‘conspicuous compassion’.

For West, public displays of compassion – where we ‘send flowers to recently deceased celebrities, weep in public over the deaths of murdered children, wear red noses for the starving of Africa’ – are really about making ourselves feel better. It’s about ‘projecting one’s ego, and informing others what a deeply caring individual you are’, says West. ‘It is about feeling good, not doing good.’

West’s pamphlet was published by the think tank Civitas last week, to a media feeding frenzy. For some, his thesis provided validation at last of their own feelings, that contemporary society has abandoned cool rationalism for over-emotionalism; others, like the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting, accused West of coming over all nostalgic for the ‘stiff upper lip’ and a time when ‘we kept our emotions to ourselves’.

In fact, West provides a series of snapshots of different aspects of ‘conspicuous compassion’ – from the public mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana to the new sport of hunt-the-paedophile to last year’s anti-war demos. Where his pamphlet is long on examples of the trend for public empathy (or its flipside, vengeance), it is short on thorough explanations for how this state of affairs came about, or what sustains it. As Kenneth Minogue says in the foreword, West uses a ‘pointillist’ style, creating ‘a canvas out of particulars’; it seems to be this ‘pointillist’ approach that has allowed commentators to read their own interpretations into West’s work and to attach their own conclusions to his ‘canvas’.

West writes of Britain’s elongated bout of ‘mourning sickness’. He points out that there were ‘no teddy bears, flowers and weeping in public’ following Michael Ryan’s senseless massacre of 16 people in the Berkshire town of Hungerford in 1987. Something changed in the early 1990s, says West, when we started to become ‘addicted to showy displays of empathy’.

The reaction to the deaths of 95 Liverpool fans in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, when Liverpool’s Anfield stadium became awash with flowers and messages of condolence, ‘hinted that change was occurring’. Turning points came in 1996, following the killing of 16 children in Dunblane, when politicians from Britain’s major parties visited the Scottish town ‘to make known their condolences’; and 1997, when Britain went hysterical over Diana’s death. (West misses out the unprecedented response to the death of Labour leader John Smith back in May 1994, after which Living Marxism magazine first described the emerging climate in Britain as one of ‘mourning sickness’.)

Today, notes West, mourning sickness has reached epidemic proportions – and it is no longer reserved for People’s Princesses or following the massacres of children, but often for C-list celebrities. He recalls that when BBC sports presenter Helen Rollason died from cancer in 1999, a frontpage splash in the Sun announced: ‘We’ll never forget that smile.’ ‘Yet who today even remembers who Helen Rollason was?’ he asks. Our conspicuously compassionate society easily flits from one object of grief to another, allowing us to forget those we wept for within weeks or months of their deaths, as the next tragic victims comes along to fill the gap.

West says there is often a grisly competition to see who can display their grief most vividly. He notes that the traditional minute’s silence is now becoming ‘two minutes, even three and occasionally 10’. ‘They are getting longer and we are having more of them, because we want to be seen to care.’ He notes that where there was one minute’s silence across much of America in 1912 for those who died on the Titanic, EU countries observed three minutes’ silence for the victims of 9/11 in 2001, while friends of the murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler gathered for a five-minute silence in her memory in 2002. ‘Does this mean the 9/11 disaster was three times as bad as the Titanic disaster’, he asks, ‘or that the horrible death of an innocent girl was five times as tragic?’.

For West, such public displays of grief do not show that we have become more altruistic, but more selfish. The deaths of celebrities and strangers ‘serve as an opportunity to (in)articulate our own unhappiness, and, by doing so in public, to form new social ties to replace those that have disappeared’. At a time when ‘binding institutions such as the Church, marriage, the family and the nation have withered’, says West, we seek new outlets for public connection.

West also observes that the motivation for attending a radical demo today, whether against capitalism or war, is often the same as that which gets people weeping after the death of a public figure – to demonstrate one’s capacity to care. He notes that the ‘Not in my name’ slogan adopted by the anti-war movement in the run-up to last year’s invasion of Iraq was about ‘registering one’s personal disapproval’ of the war. ‘As with wearing an empathy ribbon, going on demonstrations today is too often an exercise in attention-seeking.’

One problem thrown up by West’s ‘pointillist’ approach – his chapter-by-chapter focus on what sometimes seem like disparate examples of the politics of emotion – is that he puts too much emphasis on the spontaneous, public-driven nature of displays of empathy and mourning. West argues that we have become more ‘lonely’ after the decline of such institutions as the family and Church, but he tends to treat public displays of empathy as a largely bottom-up phenomenon. ‘[M]embers of the general public use the death of strangers to forge social bonds’, he writes.

This is true, but often there is little that is spontaneous about it. Political leaders and other figures of authority have been a driving force behind the rise of public emotionalism. It was Blair who sought to transform Princess Diana into a symbol of a new, caring Britain; after the death of Veronica Guerin, the Irish journalist who was murdered in 1996 and referred to by some as ‘Ireland’s Diana’, the Irish president, prime minister and head of armed forces all attended her funeral.

In many ways, the rise of the politics of emotion is a response to the demise of the old politics. The exhaustion of traditional movements of both left and right, and the loss of authority experienced by established political institutions, has given rise to a lot of soul-searching among leaders about how they can ‘connect’ with a new constituency – and often, they seem able to do this only in response to terrible tragedies or senseless deaths. As West asks: ‘[W]hat kind of society requires the horrific deaths of children to bond together?’

Conspicuous Compassion is available from Civitas.

Read on:

I’m an uncaring celebrity, get me out of here, by Patrick West

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Topics Politics


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