Sunday, 24 July 2011

Every One's a Tragedy

I had been watching the news on TV with a friend earlier this weekend, and was away from the set making a cup of tea when he called over to me and said, 'Rupert Murdoch must be thanking his lucky stars.'

The news, of course, was the bomb blast from Oslo, and anyone who has watched the news in the last forty-eight hours will know what happened next. Regular readers of my column will know that I have written in the past about my interest in the psychology of mass killings so I'll be preparing an entry on Anders Breivik later in the week (specifically because he does not fit the typical mass-killer profile, and evidence has since emerged suggesting that the killings were politically motivated.)

Amidst a maelstrom of confusion and contradictory reports about the scale of the killings abroad, on the same afternoon a small black bodybag left a house in Camden, and the reaction to Amy Winehouse's death has been less charitable than that afforded to those murdered on the tiny island retreat of Utoeya.

I will admit that I had never been Amy Winehouse's biggest fan. Sure, she could sing, but the talent belied a career that despite two well-received albums and five Grammy awards, never came close to scaling the heights that it could and should have done.

The thing that amazes me most since Winehouse's passing has been the campaign of vitriol towards her on Facebook and Twitter. I have seen posts actively celebrating her death and further comments encouraging Pete Doherty to join her. I have also seen comments suggesting that people who have posted positive things about her since her death should be ashamed to do so in the context of the Norwegian violence and the general state of the world at large. I feel that this misses the point somewhat.

So why does the death of a young and talented musician due to her self-destructive urges cause some of us to react in this manner? Part of the context of these comments reflects Winehouse's reported spending on drugs - suggested by some Sunday newspapers to be several thousand pounds a week - and money is typically a key factor that inspires jealousy in others.

There is also the sense of wasted talent that some will view with intense frustration. Given the nature of her troubled personal life, it may be going too far to suggest that Winehouse was a role model, but as most of us do not share her talent, we feel that if those same opportunities had been afforded to us, we would have treated them in a more responsible fashion and been somehow more worthy of them. This sense of frustration then increases with every cancelled concert, poor stage performance and front-page newspaper appearance.

Of course, there is a key difference between Winehouse's death and those who died in Norway - a murder victim will naturally be viewed more sympathetically than someone who loses their life due to substance abuse (assuming that this turns out to be the case for Winehouse.) That said, there are similarities too - the sudden, shocking nature of the end, the youthfulness of those that died, the sense of needless waste and loss. Also, to many, the proximity of an British celebrity will naturally pique more interest than a number of anonymous deaths in a foreign country. Of course, to observe this is not a suggestion that those deaths are any less significant or worthy of our attention.

'Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.' These sentences are borrowed from the American Society of Addiction Medicine and would seem to me to be an accurate description of Winehouse's illness. They should force us to examine the assumption that one can overcome substance abuse and psychological dependence by simply applying willpower.

The purpose of this post is not to play down the significance of the terrible violence we have seen this weekend in Norway, or in any way to glorify or condone the actions that led to Amy Winehouse's demise. It is simply to remind us all that each person who has died in these separate tragedies is someone's son or daughter, and in death each of them deserves the same respect and dignity.

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