A respected Canadian politician died in a plane crash recently. “Genuine outpouring of emotion” screamed one headline of a leading national newspaper. I was confused. Can emotions be anything but genuine? Perhaps because English is my second language (and I am guilty of not having taken ESL classes after landing in Canada) is there a nuance that I am missing here? Can journalists also be the arbiters for what constitutes “real” or “fake” emotion? Anything goes these days I guess, since we now have a breed of politicians who claim it is acceptable to have both a public and a private position.
I am not a sociologist or even remotely familiar with behavioral psychology, but am intrigued by the role of media and in particular the influence of social media in shaping public opinions and our responses to events. For instance, what prompts complete strangers to start a “roadside shrine” in the memory of an accident victim whom they might not even know? Almost every day TV channels report some tragic loss of life incident and pan over teddies, flowers and other mementos that start to accumulate on the spot. Cards from complete strangers declare that the deceased will always remain in “our hearts” and “never be forgotten. RIP …” etc. Is the public outpouring of grief, anger or joy being facilitated by technology that now enables a person to merely click on a predetermined “emoticon” or “emoji” and express his/her feelings? Are we perhaps also egocentric, subconsciously seeking recognition through a display of our own involvement?
It is not my intention to belittle such outpouring of emotions. Nor am I suggesting that people are “faking” such a display especially when public figures are involved, because they are considered to “belong” to everyone. On the other hand, when images are shown of entire villages wiped out as a result of a natural calamity or as “collateral damage”, these tend to not register as highly on our emotive scale and are merely grist for the mill.
It was not long ago that we would handwrite cards to wish someone special. “Hallmark” came along and made it easier for a person at a loss for words, to express conveniently pre-scripted emotions tailored to appeal to the target audience of wife, son, parent, sibling, friend etc. Soon we were able to select this emotive missive online and deliver it with an accompanying jingle to the addressee. The relevant data could be stored in cyber space and “cookies” turned on to ensure that we were reminded of the anniversary of the special occasion in time for a repeat performance. And then Facebook came along. Instant self-gratification at its best. Simply by displaying a “special” event on his/her personal page, an individual now jogs the memory of a select “circle.” Friends are thus saved the trouble of having to remember others’ anniversaries but can handily post a timely comment to show they care. They have the option of using abbreviated displays of emotion (BFF, LU, XOX and such) embellished further by a range of emoticons. Lesser friends or those outside the inner circle may still show that they “like” all that is happening, almost in real time.
I recently read an anecdote about an English lady in her late 80s, living alone. She would write a birthday card each day and mail it to extend her best wishes and the message of love. Friends and family members got used to receiving such “untimely” good wishes and humored her, attributing these actions to her growing senility. One day a niece who was visiting, asked her why she had been sending out cards to people when it was not their birthday. The lady smiled and said the occasion did not matter, it was just her way of connecting with an individual and letting him/her know that on that particular day she was thinking of them.
“Dost ban kar bhi nahin saath nibhaane waalaa,
Wohi andaaz hai zaalim kaa zamaane waalaa
.. Tum takalluf ko bhi ikhlaas samajhte ho Faraz,
Dost hotaa nahin har haath milaane waalaa..”
[In spite of being a friend he/she will not abide by me,
The tyrant’s mannerism is no different from that of (people of) this world
(Mere) formality is assumed by you to be sincerity (or, great affection)
Not everyone who shakes your hand is a friend] – Ahmed Faraz