'cause I'll never say anything nice again -- how can I?

January 21 2016

David Bowie died. Did you hear?

Of course you did. You're probably reading this either on your phone or your computer, which is probably connected to the Internet. In turn, that device is probably logged into Facebook, and on Facebook, you probably noticed approximately everyone you've ever met proclaiming how sad it made THEM, what David Bowie meant to THEM, how David Bowie changed THEIR life.

Where does this tendency come from, to take these events that shake the world, and reframe them around ourselves? Where did we get the idea that we're all so interesting that the conversation is better served if we make it about us?
There are so many interesting things to say about the man and the fantastic voyage he led us upon, but on social media, most folks are enacting this mechanistic “this-is-what-he-means-to-ME” routine as if they were completing coursework, as if they were behaving that way because they were expected to. Conversely, the biggest Bowie fans I know were conspicuously private about the whole thing.

It all reminds me of the titular bit from Anthony Jeselnik's latest special, Thoughts and Prayers. (On paper, Jeselnik looks exactly like the kind of comedian I tend to dislike, but unlike your Bill Burr types, he takes responsibility for his provocation. He doesn't act like a victim of "society" because he "can't tell" a certain kind of joke anymore since we're all so "politically correct", and in not doing so, he proves those others wrong. Anyhow.) The title of his special refers to the reflexive, thoughtless way that people proffer their thoughts and prayers in times of tragedy. He suggests that when people do that sort of thing, they are deflecting focus about these major events onto themselves – in effect, performing a tiny cry for attention.

Now, Bowie's death wasn't a tragedy by any stretch, but by the looks of things on social media the following morning, it definitely tapped into the same emotional vein. So when people rush to social media to lament the passing of an icon, is that a genuine effort to reach out and connect with people? Or is it just another plea to be noticed? Certainly, everyone's motives are different, but even if we'd strenuously deny that the motivation behind our ostentatious social media mourning is to garner attention, maybe we'd be lying in doing so. Humans have subconscious urges, and we can't always explain them when these sprouts of thought break the surface. We can only hope to rationalize them, ex post facto. Few would admit, even to themselves, that their very public expressions of grief are cries for attention in disguise, but even still, perhaps there's an ugly truth buried deep in our minds which we'd like to ignore.

This week has brought forth many thinkpieces about the nature of grief as it intersects with social media. Many have been critical of the self-aggrandizing way that people have been memorializing online, which in turn has raised a bunch of scorn towards these so-called “grief police”. I feel like there's validity to both perspectives. It's absolutely true that no one has any business telling anyone else how they ought to deal with loss. However, once you've gone and constructed a cheap edifice from your sadness, then put it on public display, you've reshaped the landscape of the conversation, and it becomes, in part, your responsibility. The grossly public nature of social media is still fresh enough to make for troublesome terrain.

Grant Partridge
[email protected]
Winnipeg, Canada

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