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

Conspicuous Compassion: the author responds.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Politics

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Anyone who finds first-person journalism conceited and tedious is advised to stop reading now. But some stories have to be told.

It has been a decidedly weird week. On Monday the independent think-tank Civitas published a book of mine called Conspicuous Compassion. I was hoping it was going to be received with some interest. What I wasn’t expecting was it to be featured on the front page of the Guardian, and inside The Times, the Daily Telegraph, Independent, Daily Mail and newspapers in Australia and Canada. Nor was I prepared for the barrage of calls from radio and TV stations across the globe.

The book explores our culture of ostentatious grieving, our compulsion to be seen to care, mourning sickness and the elevation of feelings over emotion. From the death of Diana in 1997 to the Soham tragedy of 2002, we have seen that today’s three C’s, as commentator Theodore Dalrymple has put it, have become ‘compassion, caring and crying in public’.

This is not a particularly original thesis. spiked editor Mick Hume, and many others here, have been writing about this phenomenon for some time. Professor Anthony O’Hear, Ian Jack of Granta magazine and Private Eye made critical noises following the floral fascism that came in the wake of Diana’s funeral. Dalrymple has for years chronicled this growth of emotionalism in the Western world, as has sociologist Frank Furedi in his books, Culture of Fear and Therapy Culture.

For whatever reason, Conspicuous Compassion seemed to strike a nerve. There has been a lot of favourable reaction from both the press and people I know, but some criticism too. Writing in The Times, the psychoanalyst Darian Leader said that Conspicuous Compassion was ‘utterly devoid of insight…nonsense…pandering to the fashionable pull your socks up, preachy attitude’. He continues that ‘it has missed the simplest, most fundamental point about group displays of grief…. It is about using those tragedies to express feelings about personal, private loss’.

Ouch! I think I’m going to start crying. Will anyone out there wear an empathy ribbon so that they can feel my pain?

At the risk of sounding an embittered Alan Partridgesque character here, I really must protest. If Darian Leader would re-read my book he would find that this is actually the central point of it: we are prone to grieving in public precisely because we are what Oliver James has called a ‘low-serotonin’ society. We are lonelier and unhappier than ever, and we use the deaths of celebrities both as a form of catharsis – to (in)articulate our sadness and to form new social bonds.

‘Civitas, the thinktank currently enjoying column inches and airtime after the publication of Conspicuous Compassion’, laments Beth Breeze of the Social Market Foundation think-tank in the Guardian online. ‘Never underestimate the kick we get when the media provide the oxygen of publicity of our latest thinking. And when our thoughts receive a front page airing then you can guarantee it has made a pointy head very happy indeed…. Keep it off your reading list if you expect any serious insights into the state of modern life.’

First of all, I don’t have a pointy head. I have a rather round, balding head with a big spam. Nor did the book, as Breeze writes, have ‘its genesis in the evening at a successful dinner party’. I loathe dinner parties. These are precisely the places where one is subjected to monologues from bourgeois dimwits aspiring to prove who is more caring than the next man. The thesis actually had its genesis in years of witnessing members of the public repeatedly and bogusly declare that they would ‘never forget’ Princess Diana or Linda McCartney or Helen Rollason – and then forgot them altogether until the next dead person came along.

According to Breeze’s misanthropic perspective, self-publicity is the only game in town here. Well, I speak as someone who has experienced distressing personal bereavement, and who knows others who have done so likewise. Thus, like many people out there, I am alarmed to see displays of phoney and insincere grieving that exploit dead strangers. A Granta publication after the death of Diana reported on people who had previously been personally bereaved but who had received no sympathy from their friends – the same friends who were subsequently happy to cry in public over the death of the ‘people’s princess’ and send flowers to display their ‘empathy’. There is nothing admirable about ignoring one’s true loved-ones and simultaneously using the tragic murder of strangers to emote in public.

Of course there is a place for showing empathy – towards people we know. Yet if we cared more about our family and friends we would not need to resort to these showy, ersatz forms of compassion that do nothing but provide an easy emotive fix.

Just as one of the biggest insults today is to be accused of being ‘uncaring’, so is to argue for controlling one’s emotions or believing in retaining one’s ‘stiff upper lip’. This is the kind of tiresome argument we’ve been hearing from the adolescent-minded Rousseauians since the 1960s. It’s as if Sigmund Freud never wrote Civilization and its Discontents back in 1929 – a work that brilliantly contends how not surrendering to our emotions is the defining aspect of humanity. To be governed by instinct renders us no better than animals.

Conspicuous Compassion argues that we should elevate reason over emotion. Reason is what differentiates human beings as superior to others; reason has been the engine of Western society. If you care for the homeless, than give money to a charity rather than be seen to give money to beggars on the streets. If you want to help those afflicted by life-threatening diseases, don’t merely sport an empathy ribbon: give your money towards that cause. In the end, action is superior to gesture.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics

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