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Recreational grief

The British think tank Civitas published a report this week under the title Conspicuous Compassion. Its author, Patrick West, argues that public outpourings of grief, such as those after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and following a number of recent child murders, show that society has not become more caring or altruistic, but more selfish.

He asserts that what seem to be public signs of caring — such as wearing coloured ribbons, signing Internet petitions, and carrying banners saying “Not In My Name” — are part of a culture of ostentatious caring which is about feeling good, not doing good; of projecting one’s ego and thereby showing others what a deeply caring individual you are, not actually doing anything that makes a difference.

My reason for describing his thesis is not to promote discussion of it, but to give the context for the language with which West girds his polemic. He includes many emotive phrases that have been used in recent years, both in the USA and the UK, to refer to such public displays: the conspicuous compassion of his title, plus recreational grief, grief-lite, mourning sickness, post-emotional age, passive victimhood, and the lapel loutism of empathy ribbons; he talks about the Three Cs of modern life (compassion, caring and crying in public) and the way that the traditional one minute’s silence has lengthened and so has undergone compassion inflation.

Most of these phrases have been independently reinvented several times, though recreational grief and grief-lite seem to have been coined by Ian Jack in Granta magazine in December 1997 in an article about the events in London in the days after Princess Diana’s death.

What has been termed ‘recreational grief’ can be expressed in any part of the country. Shrines, vigils, soft toys, flowers, ribbons on lapels and silences at matches form the etiquette of 21st-century public mourning. Not since the Victorians — who turned grief into an Olympic sport — have hearts been worn on so many sleeves.

Western Mail, 18 Oct. 2004

Politicians suffer from the genuine delusion that spending other people’s money on causes which they hope will get them re-elected is somehow morally good. It has an echo in the public attitude so well described earlier this week of ostentatious mourning as a form of self-indulgent ‘recreational grief’.

Daily Mail, 27 Feb. 2004

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Page created 06 Mar 2004; Last updated 17 May 2006