Peaches Geldof's death caused ripples on social media. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on mourning in the digital age: Selfies at funerals and memorial hashtags

There is nothing we can do to make normal or “appropriate” the death of a dear friend, or a beloved public figure.

How do we deal with death in the digital age? In recent weeks and months, social media has been unremittingly macabre, reacting to the passing of artists, public figures and political heroes. Lou Reed. Nelson Mandela. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Bob Crow. Tony Benn. Sue Townsend. Most recently, 25-year-old journalist and socialite Peaches Geldof was found dead in her home, and after everyone from Boy George to the Irish prime minister tweeted their condolences, the commentariat queued up to ask - had the "frenzy" of digital mourning gone too far? Was the handwringing just unscrupulous new media "cashing in" on tragedy? 

Memorial hashtags, selfies at funerals, maudlin Facebook memorial pages, orchestrated mobs of mourning for the latest celebrity to die young. The consensus amongst the self-designated guardians of cultural standards is that internet grief has become monstrously inappropriate, an insult to propriety. In fact, what is monstrous is not the awkward intersection of modern media and public mourning. What is monstrous is the fact that twenty-five-year-olds die before their time. What is inappropriate is the fact that brave activists and beloved writers continue to age,sicken and die right when we need their wisdom and courage more than ever. It is not social media that makes these deaths shocking. Death itself is shocking, and remains so in every medium. As Judith Butler wrote in Violence, Mourning, Politics: “What grief displays is the thrall in which our relations with others holds us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain . . . Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

There is nothing particularly new about "excessive public mourning". Some commentators seem to be labouring under the impression that there was once a time when the gutter press respected the dead, that the very earliest pamphleteers did not feed off gruesome murders, public executions and the cooling bodies of tragic socialites. As the age of mass-media dawned, melodramatic mourning for public figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to John Kennedy, became a stock part of the sales plan. And if you think Twitter is macabre, consider the fact that the mainstream media obituaries for most of the famous people who are due to pass away in the next decade have already been written. I was recently contacted by a television studio with a request to record a tribute to a member of the royal family who is seemingly still in good health.

One morning last September, I got a phone call telling me that our dad had had a heart attack and was in a coma. On the way to the hospital, I tweeted that my father was seriously ill and I was rushing to see him. Several internet denizens replied that I should be ashamed of "capitalising" on what had happened. Rage ran through me like a blade. What gave these people the right to tell me how to express grief and shock? What gave anyone that right? I was so caught up that I neglected to change out of the T-Shirt I was wearing, which happened to have a giant grinning skull on it - which actually was inappropriate attire for an intensive care unit.

When dad’s life support was withdrawn several days later, my sisters and I sat down to decide what to say on social media, because it felt like we had to say something. Eventually we settled on a short, sad message all of us could use. It was one of the most difficult parts of the most difficult week of our lives: for everything else, there was a set way of doing things, relatives to call, forms to fill in, decisions to be made to a schedule. But with this, we were on our own. Part of us wanted to say nothing. But when singer Lou Reed passed away a few weeks later, amid the tidal wave of popular sentiment, the Twitter storms and tributes, I found myself irrationally cross that the internet was not mourning my lovely but objectively unfamous father with the same zeal. Where were the hashtags?

There are no rules for what to do online when someone dies, but plenty of opportunity for instant reactions and awkward status updates. The dead, however, are beyond caring whether somebody makes a gaffe on Twitter. Public mourning is for those left behind. When it comes to the rightness and fitness of the rituals, there is only one question that really matters, and it is this - is enough being done to support the family and friends of the person who has died? Everything else is secondary to that. What was truly disgraceful in the days after Peaches Geldof’s death was not the hundreds of thousands of strangers who had never met the young journalist and socialite tweeting what some called ‘shallow grief’, but the snooty comment pieces opining that she really wasn’t worth all the fuss. 

Spiked Editor and professional heartless contrarian Brendan O’Neill asked his readers “just what were the achievements of this young woman everyone was suddenly weeping for? She wore clothes, that’s one thing.” O’Neill deemed this a "pressing question". It was not a pressing question. It was a cruel and degrading question next to which the reported 370,000 tweets about Geldof in the hours after her death was announced seem positively respectful.

We live in interesting times, times of weird technology and easy outrage, but death is still the weirdest and most outrageous thing of all. There is nothing we can do to make normal or "appropriate" the death of a dear friend, or a beloved public figure, or a young person who should have had years of fun and growing up still to live. Death itself is deeply inappropriate. It is crass and comes too soon. When it does, leaving the rest of us at our most awkwardly, awfully human, all we can do is be as kind to each other as possible.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle