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What's Hecuba to him, that he should weep for her? - The Ex-Communicator

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December 20th, 2011


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05:15 pm - 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.


A related phenomenon is belief. It's easy (I think) to mistakenly assume there are true beliefs and fake beliefs. That if someone says 'I believe x' there are two distinct states, which are exclusive and exhaustive. That is, you must be in one or the other state, and you can not be in both. The two states being that you really believe x, or that you are telling a lie.

But I think that - just like the fake/sincere emotion attending Kim Jong-il's death - there are beliefs which function as emotional pretext or symbol, but are not 'lies' as such. For example Slacktivist has written several times about The Satanic Panic around Procter and Gamble (see one post here and here is the same story on Snopes). The alleged belief is that P&G are Satanists, and reveal this by having a picture of Satan as their corporate logo. Satanic Panics in general occupy this strange zone of semi-belief. The Australian dingo-baby case, in the news today, is another example (I am thinking specifically of people who said the mother killed her daughter in a Seventh Day Adventist death-ritual). And - wildly on the edge - UFO abduction reports include a proportion of sincere delusions, a proportion of deliberate lies (I imagine), and a proportion of these strange half-sincere half-beliefs.

In all these cases people talk as if there are only two possibilities - you either sincerely believe what you profess, or you are lying. But I think this muddies each case, because people forcefully reject the idea that they are lying, they know they are not lying, and so they get locked into assertions that they must know at some level are not sustainable, but they can't let go.

(11 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:kalypso_v
Date:December 20th, 2011 06:02 pm (UTC)
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I'm sure the Big Brother factor is a major part of it - they've been told how adorable their leader is so relentlessly that a lot of them must believe it. And yes, it reminds me of Diana, too, and those weeks when some of us on the sidelines were watching in bafflement.

I remember a (white) friend from Zimbabwe saying "We were brought up to believe that we were right, and the rest of the world was wrong. But later on we found out that we were wrong, and the rest of the world was wrong." I've been told about similar confusion among white South Africans when they went through the same official overturning of their moral framework. I hope there may be a change in North Korea, but even if it comes it won't be easy for them.
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From:communicator
Date:December 20th, 2011 06:26 pm (UTC)
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No it's going to be dreadful whatever happens. Like with so many things I hope for an orderly transition to a more sustainable state, with minimum harm to all. And then people also have time to adjust their emotions.
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From:hano
Date:December 21st, 2011 12:10 am (UTC)
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I hope for an orderly transition to a more sustainable state, with minimum harm to all
And there, in a nutshell, should be one of THE guiding principals of the current Labour Party. And I despair as to how to make that happen.
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From:communicator
Date:December 21st, 2011 08:05 am (UTC)
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Me too. I think that the privileged, who have most to gain, are doing most to destroy any hope of an orderly transition. And those who should be representing the underprivileged seem hypnotised into inaction like rabbits watching a weasel.
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From:kerravonsen
Date:December 20th, 2011 11:06 pm (UTC)
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Perhaps another aspect of it is that, for those who are oppressed, for those who are enslaved, those who do not choose the difficult path of fighting it, find security in their slavery - they do not have to think, they do not have to worry about the big picture, they just have to do as they are told, and their master will look after them. For varying values of "look after", true, but it's a myth they buy into as a survival mechanism. For them, Kim Jong-il's death brings a huge amount of uncertainty - will their new master be like their old master? Change is scary. And part of that fear is transmuted into grief: "what am I going to do now?"
[User Picture]
From:kalypso_v
Date:December 20th, 2011 11:38 pm (UTC)
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Change is scary.

In the 1980s, I used to get into a big panic whenever the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union died, because of uncertainty about what would happen next. But when three died in very quick succession it was like aversion therapy, so I calmed down and accepted that it wasn't likely to lead to nuclear war every time.
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From:communicator
Date:December 21st, 2011 08:07 am (UTC)
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We were all scared of nuclear war in those days, and I think the more we find out about what was really going on in the early eighties, the more we find that fear was justified. It's terrifying in retrospect.
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From:communicator
Date:December 21st, 2011 08:06 am (UTC)
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Yes, I think that's true. And perhaps we all share that tendency a little - obviously we aren't in that terrible situation, but we have the same weaknesses.
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From:espresso_addict
Date:December 21st, 2011 01:34 am (UTC)
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I find when I'm stressed or depressed or even just tired, tears are always quite close to the surface and I've wept buckets over all sorts of unlikely things. I've learned over the years to distinguish these feelings of grief from more rational feelings, but actually the experience in the moment is fairly similar. Just the sheer uncertainty of what might happen next would certainly generate stress enough to facilitate such a reaction, and in a crowd people will also be genuinely carried along by the emotions of those around them to an extent.
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From:communicator
Date:December 21st, 2011 08:08 am (UTC)
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Yes, I think you are expressing the same idea I was trying to say, but in a more empathic and sensitive way.
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From:tehomet
Date:December 28th, 2011 11:21 pm (UTC)
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I think a lot (not all) of the public grief over the death of Kim Jong-Il is sincere, however I think the feeling stems more from the shock of the death of someone who had so much control over the lives of the ordinary North Korean people and less from actual feelings of loss.

With the English princess, I thought at the time that a lot of the public grief was to do with the fact that almost the entire population watched her and Charles' engagement announcements, wedding day, and so on. In a number of days, the average English person 'knew' Diana as well as say, I do some of my cousins.

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