In the early hours of 12 August 2014, Father Miguel Pajares, a 75-year-old Spanish missionary, was the first European to die from the Ebola virus (at least, in the current outbreak in West Africa) which he contracted whilst working in Liberia. He was, I believe, a good man who, in effect, sacrificed his life to help others. A couple of thousand other people have also died from the virus, but they were Africans, so most don’t get their names in the media.
In the on-going Gaza conflict, two thousand more people have lost their lives, and the death toll is still mounting. We don’t know the names of the majority of those people either.
A few hours before Father Pajares breathed his last, Robin McLaurin Williams, a 63-year-old American actor, comedian, film producer, and screenwriter, was found dead in his home in Paradise Cay, California. At the time of writing, it seems he hanged himself, having suffered for many years from depression.
All of these deaths are sad.
Certainly Mr William’s death is tragic (and I hope it will encourage the sceptical to believe that depression is a real illness and ‘oh, pull yourself together’ isn’t going to help anyone or anything), but it is no more tragic than any other.
However, Mr Williams was famous, and, according to the media (both mainstream and social), that means we all have to go into mourning and beat our breasts and wring our hands. We are duty bound to buy into the mass-hysteria and are not allowed to say anything at all negative about him or his oeuvre. There have been calls for the Scottish radio presenter, Alan Brazil, to be sacked from his job as presenter of Talksport because he opined that suicide is selfish and leaves the deceased’s family in a ‘diabolical’ position (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/08/12/robin-williams-dead-alan-brazil-talksport-comments_n_5670941.html) — I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it’s his opinion and he has as much right to it, and to express it, as do those who hold that Robin Williams was a comedic genius.
Personally, I am mystified by all these posts and eulogies saying what a great and fabulous talent he had — because whilst I did like Dead Poets (mainly because of where and how and with whom I saw it), seeing the name Robin Williams in a film’s cast list is a fairly sure-fire way of making me not want to watch it. I made this observation elsewhere, and it was not well received in all quarters. But it’s a fact — I have seen some ten of Mr Williams’s films (I have never seen any of his 80s’ stand-up performances, which I am assured are hilarious and less Hollywood-y), and given up on 80% of them as just ‘not my kinda thing.’ After that, I decided that he and I just weren’t suited, and I really ought to give him a wide berth. I feel the same way about Tom Hanks, by the way. This doesn’t mean that I think other people should have the same reaction. As one of my sensible friends observed ‘Isn’t it good that we all have different tastes and senses of humour?’ Yes, Kim, it is, absolutely.
Only, no, it’s not. Apparently.
It seems that voicing my view so soon after his death is ‘disrespectful’ and shows me to be ‘shallow and uncaring’. This baffles me. It seems I am supposed to choose between remaining silent and hypocritically proclaiming him to have been my favourite comedian, but that’s not my style. I didn’t suddenly decide that Nelson Mandela had had an immense influence on me and had always been my hero, either, which seemed to be quite the vogue in the weeks after his death.
When Margaret Thatcher died, people rejoiced in the street. They celebrated her passing. They even had parties and burned her effigy. That was disrespectful. Had they said that they had abhorred her politics or otherwise disapproved of her in her professional capacity, that would have been an objective and valid opinion to express.
Robin Williams may have been a lovely man, and certainly, for his friends, family, and fans, this must a devastating blow. But I do not fall into any of those groups. I acknowledge, and had already acknowledged before I was accused of responding inappropriately, that his death is sad — not because I’m grief-stricken by it, but because it’s always sad if any human being (whether we love, hate or are indifferent to him or her) reaches such a pit of despair that s/he takes his or her own life.
So why is shrieking ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead!’ acceptable behaviour, but saying ‘I never really liked him much’ not?
Moreover, why is Williams’s death more important than that of Miguel Pajares, the other Ebola victims, or those caught up in the current Arab-Israeli conflict? Or some little old lady who died a slow and painful death after falling and breaking her hip almost a week earlier, and whose body has yet to be found because her children are too busy to call and see if she’s OK and her neighbours are too upset at the passing of a celebrity to notice that they haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks? Or am I being ingenuous here? I am, aren’t I? The reason Robin Williams’s death totally and unequivocally outranks theirs is, of course, because he’s a household name and they aren’t; his life had merit and theirs didn’t. Hollywood glitz will always trump the common man’s labours. Surely it is disrespectful to mourn the passing of an actor whilst treating the others as mere statistics?
My critic was, then, partially right on one point — I don’t care; yet I am not uncaring. I cannot summon, and refuse to fake, grief I do not feel for people who fall outside my Monkey Sphere. [If you’re not familiar with the Monkey Sphere, or as it’s more properly called Dunbar’s Number, it’s the theory that we are able to maintain successful social relations with around 150 individuals, irrespective of whether they’re people we see every day or merely communicate with online. If you’re interested, here are a couple of links: http://www.cnet.com/news/sorry-facebook-friends-our-brains-cant-keep-up/ and http://www.mattbrezina.com/…/social-networks-the…/]
So, yes, I care about my Monkey Sphere — i.e. my friends, my family, my students, and other people with whom I have regular personal contact — but an actor, and one I didn’t particularly like, no. Even if he were my all-time favourite actor, I’d be shocked (as I am in this case) and slightly saddened that self-destruction had seemed the best course of action (as I am in this case) — but I wouldn’t really care. There are too many people in this world to be able to grieve over the death of each and every one of them. After all, it’ll happen to us all in the end.
Is it shallow to feel like this? I think not. If anything, this disproportionate outpouring of woe is shallow. When Take That split in February 1996, the Samaritans set up a helpline to counsel distraught fans. I remember at the time wondering how anyone, even impressionable teenage girls, could be so vacuous as to think that the dissolution of a pop group was reason enough to end it all. Celebrities can have an impact on a person’s life, views, behaviour, and that person can feel they share a personal connexion — but they don’t; and the celebrity or celebrities’ music, films, wit, writing will live on, unchanged, after the existence of the individual(s) who made it is no more.
But wait! Lauren Bacall has just died too. Wonder how that’ll affect the hierarchy of death?