November 15, 2015

DANBERG BIGGS | Our Collective Grief

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By RUBIN DANBERG BIGGS

When gruesome statistics flood our news, as they seem to do every several months, I often settle into sadness. Standing in a crowd around a late-night news screen, it seems to be the most natural response. There are sirens and pairs of stained sneakers. The anchor sounds tired, but she keeps retelling the story of what she knows so far. She asks her guests what they know, as if they might know something more. They speculate. We keep watching.

Grief is easy to muster. I find it in the pit of my stomach, and then hang onto it, because it seems like the right thing to feel. Even when my life has not been touched, tragedy breeds a sadness that feels important to hold. It also feels important to share. So with friends, I sternly shake my head, then we sit  forlorn together over coffee. Online I might post a status in solidarity, change my profile picture and tweet a hashtag so that I can share this grief with those who I am sure are feeling it as well.

Social media has made experiencing tragedy entirely collective. When an event touches a large enough number of people, many use the platform to express the way it has affected them. This can be through anything from a common hashtag to a filter for a profile picture, but the result is that there is one specific response begins to dominate. Often, this response reaches an unbelievably wide audience, but is almost always a singular message.

In some ways this can be a wonderful thing. Following this weekend’s attacks in Paris, there has been an outpouring of solidarity and grief, which has the potential to uplift any who may need support. At times, we collectively celebrate, like after June’s Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of gay marriage. Being able to experience an emotional event with a vast number of people can be comforting and fulfilling. But the trouble is that, as well intentioned as this may be, the way we share our third party sadness can sometimes shut out anything else that might need to be said.

Grief can make other conversations hard to have. It is an emotion that breeds fear and vitriol, and makes people likely to blame one another. It makes responses to tragedy less rational and more polarizing. At times, it can make productive discourse impossible to even begin, as those who attempt to raise a concern are condemned for politicizing tragedy. This is a time for us to be sad, they are told, and there is no room for anything else.

There is absolutely reason to grieve in times of tragedy, but when the propensity to cling to sadness is coupled with the tendency of online outlets to amplify a singular message, the result is that very often these tragedies just become another thing that we are sad about. Although it is important to be sad, at a certain point, the public conversation has to shift to a tone of productive response. There is no timetable for this shift, and for those personally affected by the attack, there is no requirement to ever shift. But for the fortunate bystanders, who have the luxury to think about something else, we have a responsibility to do so.

I do not think that it has to be now, nor do I really know when the time might be, but if there is no concerted effort to seek future solutions, we often slip straight from sadness to apathy. There is a limited public attention span, and it is important that it not be manipulated by the response of the majority as portrayed by social media. Rather than remaining in the cycle of periodic devastation that has defined the majority of my conscious life, we ought make an effort to seek a productive way forward from this tragedy, and resist the inclination to slip into our common collective grief.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at red243@cornell.edu. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

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