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mourning sickness in a culture of fear

bergens tidende, 24 may 2007

Virtually every politician in Britain now wears a yellow ribbon in support of the efforts to find Madeleine McCann, the four-year old British child who was abducted from her holiday apartment in Portugal earlier this month. Prominent footballers have made appeals on her behalf. Films about Madeleine were shown at both the Uefa Cup Final and the English FA final last week.

Messages of support for Madeleine's family have come from as far as Kazakhstan, Malaysia and South Africa. Dozens of websites have been set up, such as findmaddie.com and givemaddieback.com. There are 90 different Madeleine-related groups on the Facebook social network site. The official website, set up by her parents, have received over 60 million hits. McDonalds have distributed photographs of the missing child, Vodaphone has sent text messages to its customers and British Airways is distributing posters on its flights.

Madeleine's abduction is a personal tragedy for her family, and especially for her parents. But why has this personal tragedy become a national, indeed international, obsession?

The response has little do with Madeleine or with the hunt for her abductor. Rather it expresses a desire for vicarious identification with someone else's pain. There is something terribly narcissistic about a travel agent in Turkey replacing travel posters in her shop window with pictures of Madeleine, or about a woman in Geneva putting up posters in the lifts in her block of flats and writing to Madeleine's grandparents (whom she does not know) that 'We've been heartbroken since we heard the news'.

A decade ago the British sociologist Frank Furedi coined the term 'mourning sickness' to describe the growing tendency towards public displays of grief and emotion in the wake of a disaster or a death. As Western societies have become increasingly fragmented, Furedi suggested, social problems have been recast as emotional issues, while private emotions have become a matter for public consumption. In an age in which traditional binding institutions such as trade unions, political parties, the Church and the nation have withered, and in which political leaders have lost touch with the public, public displays of emotion have become a way of remoulding identity and forging social bonds.

Perhaps the most striking expression of such mourning sickness was the response to the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris in August 1997. A woman who previously had been largely ridiculed became transformed into the saintly 'People's Princess'. The price of flowers in London shot up by 25 per cent as 10,000 tons of bouquets were dumped outside Buckingham and Kensington palaces.

Once, Britons were famous for showing a stiff upper lip and suffering with stoicism. Today emoting in public has become as British as Princess Di herself. Back in 1997 it took the death of a Princess to elicit such a response. Ten years on, the deaths of minor celebrities or of unknown figures are equally likely to elicit huge emotional outpourings.

Some commentators have welcomed this new public expressiveness as evidence of greater emotional maturity. But what is on display are not genuine feelings of heartache but ersatz emotions that substitute for the real thing. True emotions - like grief over the death of a loved one - stay with you and in many ways transform your lives. The hysteria that greeted the death of Princess Diana or now swirls around the Madeleine McCann case is built on manufactured angst that, in a few months, will attach itself to another object of grief as our attention becomes diverted by another tragic victim.

If the Madeleine case shows how we have come to rely on ersatz emotion as a form of social glue, it also shows that one of the few real emotions that connect people is fear. In our more insecure world, fear has emerged as a key means by which we relate to society. Fear is not just associated with high-profile catastrophic threats such as terrorism or global warming, but, as the writer Phil Hubbard has put it, 'saturates the social spaces of everyday life'.

And what could create more fear than the abduction of a little girl by a stranger? In our culture of fear, every child is seen as a potential victim and every adult as a potential threat. 'Hell is other people', Sartre once said - and that is certainly how we tend to view each other these days.

In fact child abductions are very rare. There are 11 million children in Britain. There are around 5 to 7 abductions by strangers every year, a figure that, despite the perception that we live in a more dangerous world, has not changed over 25 years. Abductions abroad are even rarer - there has only been one other involving a British child in the past decade. Yet newspapers continue, without a shred of evidence, to spread the myth that Madeleine is one of many children who have been 'snatched to order' by an international gang of paedophiles. And politicians continue to manipulate the case to whip up new fears about dangers to children.

As the father of a three year old daughter, I can only begin to imagine the anguish and guilt felt by Madeleine's parents. But perhaps what is most depressing and dispiriting is the desire of so many to exploit the McCanns' heartache for their own narrow, narcissistic ends.