Brian & Ann's European Experience

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Spectacle of Death

What is it about a slow, televised death that is so fascinating?

I come home from MBA class, turn on the TV, and find out that what everyone has been speculating for two days is now official: Pope John Paul II is near death from advanced Parkinsons.

Now, as the leader of one of the world’s largest religions, it’s understandable that his imminent death is news. What’s less easily accepted is the spectacle. The endless talking heads givingthe grueling details of advanced Parkinson’s disease, giving the world a vicarious death that they can internalize and therefore become one with this powerful symbol as he undertakes the final voyage into the infinite.

That’s what it’s all about right. The discussions about feeding tubes through the nose, the precise impact of kidney failure. The news commentators can’t repeat enough how wrenching it must have been for this great communicator to be unable to discharge the duties of his office in his final days.

It’s all about giving the people a window into the death of someone famous. I guess we should thank the news media for helping us with our method acting, helping us get into role. They could probably make a killing if they partnered with QVC to sell props as well.

I can’t decide if it’s a normal human reaction, and should be praised as empathy, or if it’s just plain sick pandering, and should be denounced.

Is it part of being human to want to identify with these famous people, who have transcended being human and have become symbols of something we believe is greater than ourselves? Isn’t the ability to empathize, and the desire to place oneself in another’s position (at least from the safety of our living rooms) a good quality?

I don’t know. On one level, it’s just selfish.

We want to empathize with them because they represent something that we want to take part in. Knowing what dying of Parkinson’s is like helps us pretend that we are closer to the Pope as he lies in his apartments, waiting to die. It makes us just like those protestors who just wouldn’t leave in front of Terri Schiavo’s hospice while she died from dehydration. It wasn’t for Terry that they stood there day after day: it was for themselves. They needed to be there to satisfy their own beliefs and values.

I took a course one time that examined many aspects of human interactions, one example used was an audience, and what is happening when an audience gives applause. As much as they may think differently, the audience isn’t giving applause for the performer. The audience is giving applause because they have a need to express their own satisfaction/gratitude/compliance with the group’s norms/whatever. It’s not about the target of the applause… it’s about the needs of the people doing the clapping. If they *didn't* clap they would be unfulfilled.

I think the same is true with this mass media spectacle of grief. It’s not about the Pope. It’s not about Terri Schiavo. It’s not about Yasser Arafat. It’s about satisfying the need of the anonymous spectators at home to make themselves a part of the action.

[Editor’s note: It pains me to mention the Pope and Yasser Arafat in the same sentence. I am neither a Catholic nor a Palestinian, but I have an infinite amount of respect for the Pope and only absolute loathing for Yasser Arafat, who was never anything but a petty thug with distinctive headwear. I use him only because his death was so recent, he was such a good example of a symbol, and he rated the same mass spectacle.]

I guess it’s natural that we make people into symbols. We like symbols. Symbols are very powerful. They are also very easy to understand and file away. We like leaders. We like having one person represent the needs of a population. After all, it makes things simpler, and it absolves us of the responsibility. In a representational democracy we pick someone, someone who wanted the job (which should be a red flag in itself), and then we pay our taxes and say, “Hey, I did my part.” We take responsibility when they act the way we want or things go right, or we put the blame squarely on their shoulders if they don’t or it doesn’t. I just learned tonight in my Organizational behavior class that there's a name for it: the fundamental attribution error. Look it up if you want.

We do so much emotional effort to avoid responsibility by assigning it to a symbol, and then try to get it back after the fact by empathizing with them from a safe distance.

In the past few months there have been quite a few high profile, protracted deaths. Arafat. Terri Schiavo. The Pope. The press even has their next one lined up, Prince Rainier of Monaco. Although he will probably be eclipsed if he should happen to kick the bucket within the next week or so. His PR people have the worst timing.

I suppose we won’t ever escape the spectacle of a highly publicized death process. I suppose the throngs of people gathering in St Peter’s Square is a normal and natural reaction and should be praised as at least an attempt to participate. It’s better than apathy for sure.

I just wish it wasn’t so much of a production. I wish I *didn’t* have access to Terri Schiavo’s autopsy records. I wish I didn’t have updates every fifteen minutes on the progression of someone’s death. Anyone’s death. People deserve better than that. How would YOU like it?

I personally think that everyone who goes online to look at Terry Schiavo’s autopsy report should first have to sign a waiver saying that they will have their own bodies autopsied, and the details about the state of their flesh at the time of their death made public.

I’m overdoing it of course. We’re all capable of acts that are both repulsive and heroic. That’s the human condition. I just don’t like having the worst aspects of our nature publicized to sell TV ads.

Call me crazy.

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