Reflections on the bombs: the sentimentalising of modern society

Among the welter of words written here about the killings in London, my attention was drwan to these two posts in this thread.

In summary, World Eater linked the bombs to the invasion of Iraq, and Trunk picked up on this, after World Eater had been criticised for his comments and the timing of them, by asserting that now was ‘exactly the right time’ to make them. **Trunk’**s opinion was that World Eater had been attacked by what he called the ‘“I want to out-empathy you” brigade’.

This brief exchange between these two dopers who chose to stand back from the immediacy of the bombings in London to discuss broader issues rang true for me - not just the content, but more importantly the fact that they were willing to swim against the current of public opinion – that most fickle of courts. It also put me in mind of a little-known book that tackles the tendency referred to by Trunk as ‘out-empathy’. The book is called Faking It: The Sentimentalism of Modern Society, edited by Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen, and published in London by the Social Affairs Unit in 1998.

One of the chapters, on the sentimentalising of medicine, by Bruce Charlton, touches on reactions to events such as the recent bombings, what the author calls ‘the pseudo-responses inspired by the media culture’.

Mark Steyn focuses on the immense power of television and newspapers in his chapter called ‘All Venusians now: sentimentality in the media’. His comments on the tendency to intolerance of political correctness, or what he calls ‘sentimental fascism’, are particularly acute. Steyn argues that the distinguishing feature of media sentimentality is ‘its intolerance of any dissenting views, and the ferocity with which it squashes them’.

Ian Robinson in his contribution traces the faking of emotion back to the sentimentality of modern literature, quoting D.H. Lawrence’s definition of sentimentalism as ‘the working off on yourself of feelings you haven’t really got’. Reflecting on T.S. Eliot’s idea of the ‘disassociation of sensibility’, Robinson refers to ‘the extraordinary split whereby to release emotion so many intelligent people had to shut off their intelligence’.

George Orwell’s words in his preface to Animal Farm entitled ‘The freedom of the press’ seem as relevant today as they did at the time:

It’s not just about sentimentality. It’s just in poor *taste * to talk about certain very serious tragedies too coldly analytically too early. Respecting taste and propriety are not the same thing as caving to “orthodoxy” or “sentimentality” (although they can be used to enforce the orthodoxy now and then). That conflation of propriety with insincerity or intellectual tyranny is frankly a little adolescent. And as a reminder, what rebellious adolescents generally miss is that propriety is more often about respecting people than it is about conformism. In this case it’s about respecting the dead.

Now the really glaring logical flaw in your OP is that the major justification against an “unreal” sentimental stance (in your quote from Charlton) is that since a private, distant citizen has no effect upon the events in question, why should they pretend anything? Sure i’d agree, but what you and he are then complaining about are *not * at all private citizens behaving privately, but the MEDIA and (in your example) two people talking on a public board. Public behavior by definition is - well public. It affects or can affect the public sphere and the world at large. Particularly in the case of mass media you should assume it will affect the events and people in question. In other words Charlton’s argument is totally irrelevent. Either behavior is private and it affects no one in which case who cares about any of this. Or it’s public and it does affect others, in which case propriety and respect are legitimate considerations.

Charlton’s other argument is that the media taking a sentimental stance encourages dishonesty (since you can’t really care about distant people and events). This is bogus too. Everyone understands the difference between what you can say to a million people (some of whom may be in mourning, etc) and what you can say to your best friend over a beer. I’d turn the argument around and say that if the media disregarded propriety they’d just be encouraging disrespect and public callousness about human tragedy.

So I have no problem with the media -or people on this board - encouraging certain levels of propriety. e.g. I don’t think it was sentimental of the networks to suspend regular programming - especially comedies - for a short while after 9/11. It was respectful. As long a a) this is by choice and b) we can return to a normal rational analytical discourse at an appropriate time. In other words it’s one thing to say “now is not the time.” It’s another thing to lock the thread or warn the user.

I do agree with you in part though. The problem with 9/11 is that the discourse never really returned to “normal.” It’s still very difficult to publicly talk about it as anything but an unspeakable tragedy which makes it damn hard to analyze rationally. Maybe the normalization process is still happening and is just very slow. After all it took 30 years before the nation could (more or less) stomach the “back and to the left” analysis in JFK. I think 4 years or 30 years though is too slow. It’s preventing reasonable and necessary discussion for too long.

My final point and to me more important point has nothing to do with taste. From a political perspective I think the media should never reward terrorism with sympathetic media coverage of *any * form. Remember after the Chechnyan terrorists killed a few hundred children how there was suddenly a storm of media coverage on the Chechnyan plight and Russian abuses? Little or no coverage before or since. All this does is make further terrorism absolutely inevitable.

The argument to propriety is an argument to values, or tradition, which is fine, since tradition is our raw material, to which we in the West owe a terrific debt. However, that’s not to prevent us taking a critical attitude towards tradition, such that we can either accept or reject a particular tradition. Perhaps the real challenge, particularly for the Moslem world, is to challenge dogma and orthodoxy, especially if, as Popper argues, orthodoxy is ‘the death of knowledge’ since ‘the growth of knowledge depends entirely on the existence of disagreement’.

Pop-linguist Deborah Cameron, one time firebrand radical and scourge of The Guardian newspaper, now respectably middle-aged and Murdoch Professor of Linguistics at Worcester College, Oxford, considers in her 2001 book Working with Spoken Discourse televised comments made by Tony Blair soon after the announcement that Princess Diana had died. Cameron describes Blair’s words as a performance of ‘patent insincerity’, a performance which ‘conceals its own status as a performance’. Cameron’s verdict – besides the obvious problems it raises in terms of assessing ‘sincerity’ when, as she writes elsewhere, the contents of people’s minds are inaccessible - ignores the fact (it appears to be a ‘fact’) that a traumatic event such as the death of Diana creates a kind of social contract which binds people for a short time, at least.

It appears reasonable to suggest that a certain response to tragedies is expected, at least in the English-speaking countries I am familiar with, and that such a response contains a fake element. With regard to Blair’s response when asked to give his reaction to the news of Diana’s death, what options did he have besides that of speaking as he did of ‘a nation in mourning’, etc. But even this is to suggest more malice aforethought on Blair’s part than might actually have existed. Considering the extraordinary circumstances in which he found himself, there is at least a chance that a) he knew and liked Diana, b) he felt it appropriate to tap into and reflect the outpouring of emotion (however phoney or flawed) that was taking place in Britain (even if he had wished to resist it, it is difficult to think of the words he could have used), and c) such a reaction was appropriate in the situation according to generally held opinions about the way in which a leader should react at such times. (The responsibility Blair had as Prime Minister to raise the spirits of those who felt a sense of loss and appeared quite distraught should not be overlooked).

But is it at least prudent to be sceptical of emotional reactions and affective signals. In his biography of Winston Churchill, William Manchester describes the way the British PM would work assiduously with his secretaries on his speeches, drafting and redrafting as revisions were made. The final version would be typed on small pieces of paper – a forerunner of modern cue cards – and set in broken lines to aid his delivery, in ‘speech form’. Manchester notes that when Churchill rose to speak in the House of Commons, contrary to popular belief, he held not notes on the issues he meant to address, but the entire text of what he intended to say. One of the techniques he developed for heightening the drama of his speeches and giving them the illusion of spontaneity was the use of stage directions, which he incorporated as notes into his cue-cards. Among those that Manchester mentions are ‘pause: grope for word’ and ‘stammer: correct self’.

There’s also the cultural factor. of course. We Americans are a lot more sentimental than the Europeans. Years ago, McDonalds had a TV ad that didn’t mention the food; instead it was a 60-second documentary about a retarded kid who worked at McD’s. When the ad played at a French screening of international TV ads, the audience booed. It wasn’t simple anti-US, anti-fast food vitriol: it was resentment at attempted emotional manipulation.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but of among all the photos of the the tons of flowers piled up for Princes Di, I didn’t see any teddy bears. Perhaps this is because the UK hasn’t the same trade relations with the Chinese powerhouse of teddy bear production as the US, but I still think Americans are more likely to sentimentalize and therefore juvenilize tragedy. Here in Tacoma, Washington State, when a teenage gang-banger is killed in a drive-by shooting, the site is soon decorated with teddy bears. Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt the teddy bear memorial phenomomenon is carried to this extreme in Europe.

I’m not sure that the OP can be applied so neatly to a message board which has posters from all over the world, of different classes and ages. That is, simply because of the nature of the medium, we are by definition more likely to encounter authentic, personal reactions.
I asked Bricker to lay off the editorializing about Spain in his thread, and said, “This isn’t the place”, too…while I can’t say with certainty that I wasn’t motivated by some sort of subconscious ‘modern drive towards inauthentic performance’, I was literally motivated by my own experience: my Spanish friends and colleagues, my own research and time in Spain. I disagree wholeheartedly with the whole ‘Spain capitulated’ meme, and felt the need to say so.

The problem is when “too early” drags on indefinitely, as it seemed to do for 9/11.

Believe it or not, I’m not getting at you or any of the others who might have been “guilty” of this reaction. (The Spain thing was admirably dealt with, I thought, by the way.) I’m genuinely interested in these shadowy notions of sincerity and authenticity, while viscerally being left cold by these mass outpourings of “grief”. Outrage I can understand. Anyway, I saw the pictures (late) and read the stories, and thought “tip of the iceberg”. Some Moslems, even from more enlightened backgrounds, are so authority-minded, so apparently resistant or apathetic to ideas of the open society that we take for granted that I really am quite fearful for the future.

And, of course, there’s the point that we don’t know for sure Al-Qaeda did it. It could have been an anti-G8 anarchist group. All it really would take is four or five motivated college students.

Indeed. And at the early stages, the only socially acceptable responses were anger and grief. Thinking calmly was in bad taste. Oh those poor people was OK. Let’s bomb those Afghans because we’re angry was OK. Let’s just think about this a bit before we do anything rash was regarded as far to cold and calculating to be allowable.

And ofcourse the possibility excist that Bruce Charlton is just a cold and calculating little man.

There exists for many people, in their thinking perhaps more than in the way they live their life (where all human beings tend to be remarkably the same), a false dichtomomy between ‘calculation’ (as in reasoning or thinking) and lack of compassion. This is reflected in (and perhaps to a degree exacerbated by) the collocation that ‘calculation’ so easily makes with ‘cold’. The possibility exists (and surely one of our goals as moral beings must be to bring this about) that we can combine the qualities of critical rationalism (though discussion, self-criticism and criticism of others’ arguments) and mercy/compassion. It’s a shame that human beings (especially intelligent ones) have a tendency to revert to ad hominem attacks when they are dealing with people they do not like.

One of the most salient memories I have of left-leaning people’s opposition to Margaret Thatcher was their assertion that she ‘lacked compassion’. Speculation abour other people’s mental states and motivation is fun, but not very fruitful, or indeed accurate. In fact, when our rage causes us to guess others’ motivation, we are probably almost always wrong.

So the affective realm does play a role in human undertakings, but more a negative role, or perhaps a better way of putting it is a ‘behind-the-scenes’ role. It needs constantly to be kept under check so that our rational side is able to function well. Most importantly, we need what Popper calls the ‘friendly-hostile cooperation’ of other people, which can be most effectively effected by putting our ideas in writing - just as we do on this board.

There’s an odd break with that dichotomy when the subject under discussion is terrorists.
This story brings it out: London Bombs Likely Simple and Homemade

Not only are the terrorists cold blooded, calculating killers, but the rational powers they use to devise their attacks are sub-par.
I suppose one could take the slant of the article to imply that the perpetrators where some sort of ‘MacGyvers of Mayhem’, but that’s certainly not the feel I came away with.

A nice example of the need to keep a check on our emotive/affective side (and the benefits to be derived from so doing) is to be found in the story of the on-off-on-off transfer of English star footballer Steven Gerrard from his home-town club Liverpool to billionaire London side Chelsea. The Telegraph newspaper, reflecting on the fact that Liverpool fans had burned a replica of Gerrad’s shirt at the ground after he announced he was leaving the club, refers to those fans as belonging to ‘this deeply sentimental and unforgiving city’. Sadly, it is not a combiation of emotions that is limited to Liverpuddlians.

How do you determine, then, what is honest sentiment and what is sentimentalization? People are so different in the extent to which they feel things.

No one likes easy sentiment. But not all of us are gifted with the words to express depth of genuine feeling.

Very interesting OP, very interesting thread.

I thought the comments about Churchill’s methods were quite telling.

I think we need to cut to the chase here, though. I think the OP and others here are trying to get at something that is hard to see from this particular angle of approach.

Namely, words are political tools, and there is politics in everything. We propagandize constantly; we aim to influence, and certain words and tones produce the desired effect, while others do not. Further, we are often in a passive position, in which we are called upon to speak when we had rather remained silent. Or perhaps, like the news media or politicos, it is our job to say something no matter what happens.

I think OP and others in the thread are feeling disgust for this latter type of propaganda, the passive type. Diana kicks the bucket, and Blair has got to say something. It is not an active effort of his, something by which he will accomplish one of his goals. Rather, he must prevent the harm of PM’s saying nothing when people expect him to speak.

So, we are drawn into a kind of propaganda vacuum. We might have no feelings about a matter, either because we really don’t care or because we have not had sufficient time to digest it. We might intellectually think something to be bad, yet find ourselves not particularly interested in it as we are distant from it. Yet we must not appear callous or selfish.

So, yes, at such times propaganda tends to have a limp, cheesy feel to it; it is a going through the motions, little more. We can appreciate the will to power that lies behind good, active propaganda, but this is just fluff.

I do think, however, that some cites are in order to demonstrate that “modern society” is more prone to bullshit passive propaganda than those of the past. I doubt that there has been any change.

2 am, 4 am, whenever it was in Japan that my mom called to tell me about the New York crashes, my thoughts at the time and until modern day were “Well that was stupid. You’ve just pissed off the most powerful country in the world.”

That the children of those people were now going to be parcelled out and raised by relatives is certainly a hardship–but few thought of this right off the bat, instead just thinking “Oh my god, all those people dead.” The dead people don’t care. And while I admit that those children will hate having that happen to them–whether they will turn out worse or better people for it is unknown. Most likely they will just grow up to be people, and ones who have many that they can share their feelings with.

Or, recently I tried to start a debate on the death penalty, and regardless of the side that the person was on who came in to the thread their response was emotional. That I could joke and approach the subject in a indifferent manner simply annoyed the others in the thread.

Certainly the media compels people to feel emotion for the dead, and express that. But I can’t say that–speaking as a good bit of a cold fish–that I see that people themselves aren’t just as demanding of this as the media may be.
And, as the Churchill examples shows: A well placed break in a speach or a visage of “hurt–but I shall be strong” can bring the masses to vote your way regardless of whether logical reasoning would get them to that same position. That worries me much more than a few hundred deaths when we are supposed to be so progressive.

I don’t remember thinking calmly to be in bad taste. The only thinking I can recall being in bad taste came from those who protested for peace and forgiveness within days of the attack. Sure, there were plenty who said “let’s bomb the hell out of whoever did this” but we took the time to make sure we attacked the right people.


Part of my reason for starting this thread was that I felt little when I heard about the London bombings. I felt little even though both my dad and my brother live there, as well as my brother’s wife and three children. (They don’t live or travel in the affected areas - which I was quick to identify - so I’m not quite the heartless bastard I might appear to be - at least not on that score).

But my main reason was because a) matters like this have always interested me and b) my recent academic work has included - albeit rather superficially - consideration of such notions as ‘sincerity’. It’s also something I think about a lot and raise from time to time with people who I think might be able to understand what I’m referring to. Many people are just not on the same wavelength. Or pretend not to be…!

The argument from propriety is a good one, not least because propriety is such a nebulous type of concept. (A friend of mine once considered doing a thesis on the Italian word ‘proprio’ becasue it had so many shades of meaning.) And yet, since tradition is so important to our ways of behaving (unlike, I would contend, convention, which tends to stunt discussion and criticism), then when, for example, C.S. Lewis says some things are just not appropriate (I’ll try to find the example he gives, but I think it’s to do with behaviour round the kitchen table at home should not be replicated at a formal dinner party), then I think he’s probably right. The 60s radical type person (here’s looking at you, Zoe!) might think they’re being radical and subverting patriarchal, hegemonic conventions when they turn up in a T-shirt with a caption that attacks the host’s beliefs, but most people will just think he or she’s a prat!

Now, to go back and try to answer Zoe’s question, I can do no better than fall back on the Bible and say it’s through practice, plus a good heart. If you’ve got a heart that isn’t so good and gracious, then you’ll just find fault in everybody you don’t like and vice-versa. (The Bible bit I’m referring to, after suitable straining through my interpretative filter, is the Hebrews 5: 14 reference to people (‘the mature’, tellingly) who ‘by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil’.)

But as we have seen this is a double-edged sword, anyway. Good writers may be the best propagandists. A final thought from my other great hero, Popper, triggered by the mention of propaganda. He and Eccles suggest that at the heart of the difference between human language and animal language is the ability to make a distinction between ‘propaganda’ and ‘rational arguments’. This serves to remind all who work with words of the importance of the latter. Or should do.

In his 1945 review of Sean O’Casey’s Drums Under The Windows, Orwell refers to the tendency towards romanticising whole peoples (in this case “The Irish”):

“W.B. Yeats once said that a dog does not praise its fleas, but this is somewhat contradicted by the special status enjoyed in this country by Irish nationalist writers…the basic reason is probably England’s bad conscience. It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation…So literary judgement is perverted by political sympathy and Mr O’Casey and others like him are able to remain almost immune from criticism.”