Friday, October 31, 2014

Viral emotion, and why my generation sucks.

On October 22nd, I joined the entire country in following the story about Nathan Cirillo.  The unarmed soldier from my hometown was shot dead while guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.  There has been enough speculation about the motives of the killer in both mainstream and social media.  Depending on the source, the shooter was either an ISIS sympathizer and terrorist or a homeless crack addict with mental health issues.

But that's not exactly what I want to talk about.

This is a terrible tragedy.  My heart goes out to the young man's family and friends, who must be devastated.

Watching all of the coverage unfold online, both via legitimate news sources and social media, I began to feel very uncomfortable. 

I want you to just contrast these images for a second:

Image 1
Image 2

Actually, if you look through all the images in this article from the Ottawa Citizen you may slowly begin to see what I'm talking about.

They begin with the heartbroken emotions of a grieving mother, stoic faces of comrades and friends, sombre respect from silver-haired citizens watching the procession.

Look now at the images of the crowds lining the streets, jostling for the best camera angle on the overpasses, holding signs with hashtags.

Wait, what?  Hashtags?  As the funeral procession goes by?  The hearse even?  Is this so that the family can go home and search #Hero on Twitter at the end of the night?  And find what? Self-promoting pseudo grief messages in 140 characters or less?

I can't help but try to understand what this feels like to those who are legitimately grieving the sudden loss of a man that they personally knew and loved.

Imagine enduring the most heart-wrenching grief of your life.  Imagine your child dying, or (if you don't have a child) your spouse, your parent, your best friend.  Take a moment to really feel what that would be like for you. 

Imagine now, that this death is co-opted by the nation in such a way that the country is not mourning for your loss, but for *their* loss.

Never mind that most of these people have never met your loved one.  That none of them know how their eyes crinkled when they smiled, how they couldn't stand cooked mushrooms or that they were terrified of spiders.  Never mind that up until the day before, none of these people even knew that your loved one existed.

You are stuck sharing your personal tragedy with mobs of people who are acting an awful lot like ambulance chasers and paparazzi.

The words "Nathan Cirillo" no longer refer to a person, but to a production.  They are "trending" online.  Attached to pouty-faced selfies on Facebook from strangers who are proclaiming themselves to be "heartbroken".  Used to promote sports events that are marking his death with some sort of ceremonial moment, before continuing on with the game as usual.  It strikes me as barely a step away from selling bobble-heads at the concession stands.

I wonder how many people have stopped to ask themselves if any of this is comforting to his family.  Because if it isn't, we haven't exactly allowed space for them to tell us to knock it off.  To tell us that our frenzied need to feel a part of the story has pushed aside their deep and personal loss.  That their voices are completely lost in the madness.

I suppose that the only blessing about this viral swell of public emotion is that it recedes and is redirected as quickly as it arrives.  By October 26th it had a new target, Jian Ghomeshi.

And thank goodness for that.  Because now, at last, Nathan Cirillo's family can grieve in peace.

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