Canadian Politics, Social Media

If a Tree falls on twitter, does it make a sound?

I wanted to wait on this particular post for a little while to let peoples’ emotions die down a bit, but I would like to write about the death of Jack Layton. I’m not going to write about the man himself mind you, but rather the remarkable response to his passing. I will say this about Jack, he was an amazing Torontonian and his contributions to this city cannot be overstated. Others have eulogized him far better than I could. I am not a fan of his accomplishments on the national scene, but that is neither here nor there. What I really want to talk about is the widespread outpouring of grief at his death.

There are two specific things which struck me about the way people reacted to his death. First (and less interestingly) is the response to Christine Blatchford’s comments on his final letter to Canada. Was Christine Blatchford’s op-end tasteless and poorly written, and chock full of the semi-demented goodness that colours most of her writings? Absolutely! That being said, she was right in one thing (I was so surprised about that fact that I had to re-read the entire thing to convince myself I wasn’t dreaming). She was right in saying that Jack’s letter was a partisan statement, and as such was open to criticism. Jack made specific and deliberate statements in support of the NDP and their policies. He made political statements and political statements are not sacrosanct. His message of hope and peace was brilliant and well-delivered, but if he wants to tie it to his political party then people of other political stripes are welcome to challenge that. Unfortunately the challenge came from the blunted pen of Christine Blatchford.

What is more interesting is the grief and plaudits that came out as soon as his death was announced. Now, before you read any further I want to say that this is not an argument borne out of cynicism. What did get my cynical hackles up was the way that people started professing their admiration for a man that not six months ago had previously said they didn’t trust him, or wouldn’t vote for him because he reminded them of a used car salesman. I’m not going to name names, but I know a half-dozen or so people who did this, and others have commented on the same. However I don’t think this is a result of insincerity or people trying to cash in on a public trend (see, I told you I wasn’t being cynical.)

What I think we witnessed when Jack passed was the result of two things: first, I think we are witnessing the first tangible Canadian example of grief by peer pressure. Quite simply, people were overwhelmed by the response of their peers, and their own reflections were influenced in the direction of a similar response. Secondly, I think that people were grief struck because Jack was ‘front of mind’ in a way that politicians usually aren’t. Roger Ebert summed it best in his review of Solaris:

all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that, even without the benefit of Solaris. We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them.

We ‘create’ people in our minds by interacting with them and then forming memories of the events and associated feelings. The more we ‘see’ them the more we build them up and the closer we feel to them. Jack ran a brilliant and positive campaign just months before his death, and his increased stature and public illness only increased his visibility. In brief, we became very familiar with a smiling, friendly and amiable Jack to the point that we all felt closer to him than we really were, and his death hit us hard (legitimately) as a result. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t mean to minimize the grief that people genuinely felt, but I do find it extremely interesting. Jack’s impact on the election was large, but we shouldn’t forget the fact that his accomplishments on the national stage were extremely limited to this date. In an era of a 24 hour news cycle, social media and short attention spans we are constantly bombarded with images of public figures, and the timing of Jack’s death combined with the fact that he actually presented a positive and gentle persona in public helped to create a bond with people that is largely unprecedented in Canadian history.

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