I was recently asked how Michael Jackson’s death affected me. I had to be honest and report that it really had not impacted my life. I did feel a degree of pity. But, I would feel the same upon learning about the death of anyone who did not deserve to die.
In contrast to my rather limited response, some fans have shown incredible pain at his loss. From their responses, one would think that they had lost a parent, husband or dear friend. My initial view was that they were overreacting and that their emotional response was simply not warranted or proper. This, naturally enough, started me thinking about whether my view had any actual merit or if I was simply engaged in biased thinking. In order to help settle this, I started by by considering the basis of my own rather limited feelings about his death and why I took his fans to be having improper emotions. In addition to dealing specifically with the matter at hand, this discussion also deals with the broader topic of proper emotions (or emotional responses, if you prefer).
In my own case, I like some of his music and I thought Thriller had a rather kick ass video (especially since it had Vincent Price). However, I am not related to him I never met him in person, and never even exchanged emails with him. As such, I have no meaningful connection to him that would warrant a powerful emotional response to his untimely death. For me to react in a powerful way to his death would thus be improper, in that my response would far outweigh what I should be feeling. It would, to use an analogy, be like howling in pain because I merely pricked my finger. That sort of overreaction is not, as Aristotle might say, the right degree of emotion to feel for that situation. This is not to say that his death was on par with the pricking of a finger, just that his role in my life was extremely limited (seeing a few videos and hearing some songs).
From my perspective, the fans who are emotionally devastated by his death are overreacting. After all, most of them had most likely not even met him in person. At most, they might have seen him on stage during a live show. That hardly constitutes a meaningful connection between two people that would warrant such an extreme response. In my own case, I only form strong attachments to people I actually know and expect the attachment to be reciprocated. Otherwise, the relationship would seem to be something of an illusion and a fantasy. But, perhaps that is a harsh thing to say. So, what I feel upon the death of another person depends on the relationship we had. If there was no meaningful relationship, then it would not be a proper reaction to feel terrible grief upon that person’s death. I should, of course, feel for other people-but my response should be a proper response, a fitting measure of grief for what has been lost to me.
One response to my view that his fans attached great importance to him and he was somehow very significant in their lives. Some people can form such one way emotional bonds to someone who would not know them from Adam or Eve. As such, his loss would hurt them deeply and thus it could be argued that their reactions are quite justified and proper. After all, people do get emotionally attached even to objects (such as cars or jewelry) and the loss of such items greatly upset them. Obviously, the objects cannot love people back. Likewise, one might argue, a person could be quite emotionally attached to the image or idea of a celebrity and thus feel a terrible loss when that person dies.
In reply, it seems unreasonable to get so emotionally attached to objects. They are, after all, objects. Likewise, for a fan to get emotionally attached to a celebrity seems to be unreasonable. It is not that the celebrity is not a person, but that the typical fan is not interacting with the person. Rather, they are merely experiencing the celebrity’s public presentation. In the case of Jackson, his fans saw his videos, listened to his music, watched the TV coverage of his life, and perhaps saw him in stage or caught a glimpse of him in public. What they became attached to was not the person-for they knew not the person. Rather, they became attached to that public presentation. As such, when he died they did not lose him-they never had him. What they lost, to be rather rough about it, is the chance to hear new songs, see new videos, and see live shows. They can still experience almost all that they experienced of him by watching the videos or playing his music. As such, even though he is dead, their relationship can continue almost unchanged. As such, extreme grief hardly seems warranted.
Of course, an even easier response to my view is to just say that people feel what they do and there is no right or wrong when it comes to emotions. That does have a certain appeal, but is easily countered. For example, if a child is killed in car wreck and an onlooker started laughing about it and making jokes, we would certainly say that it was not right for him to feel that way about the death of a child.
It might be claimed that I am a cold person who is unable to appreciate the loss experienced by Jackson’s devoted fans. Who am I, one might say, to judge their grief and tears as proper or improper? An excellent question, to which I give an obvious reply: if I am not to judge them, then I am not to be judged for judging them.