December 20th, 2011

breaking bad

What's Hecuba to him, that he should weep for her?

People are asking whether the public outpourings of grief in North Korea over the death of Kim Jong-Il are sincere (for example BBC here). Do people really feel sad, or are they play-acting because of fear of reprisals, or just from desire to conform? I am reminded of the end of 1984 when Winston Smith ceases to fake conformity, and comes to love Big Brother. Or - on a much less sinister scale - the extravagant public grief at the death of Princess Diana, or the adulation of the Pope. Do people really feel it?

My argument would be that it's not so clear cut between sincere and fake emotion. We all have dammed rivers of unexpressed emotion within us, to the greatest extent in the most repressive societies (whether religiously, politically or socially repressed). Repressed societies (like Britain) offer approved channels and safe ways to express emotion, and I think people unconsciously find their relief by projecting or anchoring inchoate and shameful feelings onto public symbols.

It's tempting to think that Koreans are play-acting, and conscious of an explicit rift between their real and fake emotions - and that because we don't experience such a conscious rift, our own emotions must be sincere in contrast to theirs. On the other hand, I am not claiming there is no difference between our experience and theirs - whatever its faults we surely live in a much healthier society.

I'd say it's good to be close enough in touch with your own feelings to be aware that you are repressing them, or faking them. But I think it's also quite painful to maintain an inner life which is at odds with what is socially approved.

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