Saturday, 23 July 2011

A loss of life is a loss of life

Yesterday, a bomb went off in Norway close to the offices of the country's prime minister in central Oslo, killing at least seven people and leaving many more injured. Soon thereafter, a far-right Christian fundamentalist called Anders Behring Breivik opened fire on the island of Utoya where a conference was being held for the youth wing of the ruling Labour Party. At least 91 young people are thought to have been killed. As I type this, thousands of people in East Africa are suffering from extreme starvation as the region undergoes it's first famine in thirty years. And today, at approximately 4 o'clock, the singer Amy Winehouse died of a suspected drug overdose, aged 27.

All of these events are tragedies in their own right.

This afternoon when news of Amy Winehouse's death broke, some people had already started saying such things as "she deserved it" and was nothing more than "drug-pushing scum". Some made jokes about her untimely death. Some said our attention should really be directed to events in Norway, which, in their opinion, were obviously far more terrible.

I noticed this happening more on Facebook than on Twitter. In my Twitter timeline at least, people mourned Winehouse's passing and celebrated her immense talent. They also chastised others for doing the things I mentioned above. In fact, the majority of my timeline was filled with people telling others to stop being idiots, rather than actual idiots themselves. There were exceptions of course.

To those who believe that Amy Winehouse's death is not as worthy of our sorrow as what has happened in Norway or what is happening Somalia, I say this - tragedy is tragedy. You can't put death into neat, hierarchical lines of importance. You can't say, "Well, we shall spend ten minutes being sad about this, but a whole hour being sad about that".  Every human life is just as valuable as the next. And no-one on this earth has the authority to say - this person's life is worth more than this one's.

To those who say Amy Winehouse deserved to die the way she did and that she brought it on herself, I say this - please show some humanity. We live in a society of never-ending contradictions. We glamourise the "rock star" lifestyle, and then berate those rock stars who die from overdoses as being guilty of stupidity. We invent stereotypes about "tortured artists" and "depressed geniuses" to dismiss the problems at hand, for doing so is much easier than confronting them. We worship and revere those members of the hallowed "27 club", while at the same time preaching about the evils of drug and alcohol abuse.

Our attitudes when it comes to drug-taking are still startlingly Victorian. We criminalise drugs, thus driving the industry deep underground, where it is free to exploit to its heart content without any worries of regulation. We imprison those who are driven to drugs. And what exactly does that achieve? Spending months upon months locked up in a cell does not a healed and reformed individual make. In what socio-economic group is drug taking most prevalent? Answer: the working class. Crushed by decades of policies which hoped to destroy their very way of life, many working class young people are driven to a life of drug abuse. There are, after all, no jobs; nothing better to do with one's time. And snorting a line of cocaine has the happy effect of making you forget how dreadful your circumstances are, and how you have very little chance of ever having anything better.

And then we have people like Amy Winehouse. An incredibly talented human being, plunged into a world where taking copious amounts of drugs is simply the norm. Can we blame her for the path she took? Who are we to say that, suddenly finding ourselves rich, famous and so desperately young, and in an environment where we are encouraged and indeed pressured to use drugs, we wouldn't do the same? It has sadly been the fate of many. And yet, these fast-living superstars are at one and the same time rebuked and idolised by a society unsure of its morals and a tabloid press without a conscience.  People like Amy Winehouse are so often victims of the system. But it is so much easier to blame the person than it is to try and change the system.

It has been an horrendous week. The news has truly been awful, and people the world over have suffered unimaginable loss and pain. None of these tragedies are more sensational than the other, because tragedy is not a competition. And so the people of Norway and especially the families devastated by these events are in our thoughts, the people suffering in East Africa are in our thoughts, and Amy Winehouse and her loved ones are in our thoughts. This week ascertains a fact that it is always worth remembering - human life is precious, it is extraordinary, but above all, it is fleeting.

Rest in peace, Amy Winehouse

If you would like to donate to the DEC East Africa appeal, you can do so by clicking here


amd said...

Very well put and clear. I would underline all of it with thick red pen if I could but especially this part:

"You can't put death into neat, hierarchical lines of importance. You can't say, "Well, we shall spend ten minutes being sad about this, but a whole hour being sad about that".

true indeed - and many people seem not to get that!

Mary Grace said...

I must admit that I was one of those people who wouldn't be surprised to hear about Amy Winehouse. You just made me realize how awful and dehumanizing such a thought was. Thank you.

R. Burnett Baker said...

You made a perfectly cogent point with your observation about "tortured artists" and "depressed geniuses". I've never thought about it that way.

But your overarching point of tragedy being what it is without quantification is spot on.


Cindee said...

I love your blog, thank you for sharing, I look forward to future entries! Check out my blog at Xx :)