‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

False proximity

In 1996, Princess Diana died in a car crash. As an extremely glamorous member of the British royal family, she was a major celebrity whose death was followed by an enormous amount of grief expressed by many who never knew her personally.

Mostly simulated one assumes, but why grief?

Surely we feel no genuine grief at the death of a celebrity we don’t know. Yet presumably many people felt close to her – a false proximity nurtured and encouraged by the media and by Diana herself.

False proximity seems to be an extremely common illusion, applying to abstractions as well as people. Celebrities are part abstraction of course. The Diana virtually all of us knew was mostly a glossy image nurtured, refined and endlessly fascinating to millions...

...Knock, knock, knock.

Two members of the Labour Party came to the door in the middle of writing this post. Canvassing for the EU elections no doubt. I waved them away and shut the door. I don’t want real proximities to mess up a post on false proximity do I?

Yet those two political toilers were presumably motivated to bang on my door by a false proximity to both people and political abstractions. Ed Miliband even! Plus equality, fairness, a just society and suchlike. Proximity to a Cause on my very own doorstep but no thanks – that’s not how detachment works.

Our ancestors were heavily influenced by a false proximity to God, ghosts, demons and even the local priest or vicar. Although I tend to wonder how common even that level of piety really was among horny-handed drudges with little to look forward to apart from a mug of sour ale at the end of  a long day.

Now we foster a sense of false proximity to everything from the latest teen idol to holiday destinations. What else is an exotic holiday but the illusion of false proximity to a more interesting or desirable location?

We foster a sense of false proximity to celebrities of course, but that about other abstractions? Royalty, honesty, integrity, intelligence, social class, other cultures, professional standards, science, the arts, places, the boss, style, football clubs, disasters, human suffering, conflict, the supernatural, the environment, whales, dolphins, furry animals, trees, forests and even the whole universe.

False proximity sells myths.

Even simile, metaphor and simple comparison may create a sense of false proximity between one idea and another, one situation and another, one event and another, a historical figure and one from the present day.

The distorting lens of the media presents unusual people as being fascinatingly closer than they really are. We get the same beguiling effect of false proximity when the media present us with rare events such as terrorist bombings or freakish murders.

  • A community is in shock after a young man was shot…
  • The film premiere was held last night - the stars were…
  • Armed police chased him across this road… 

It all adds up to a dramatic but distorted version of what is going on in the world. False proximity stirs up emotional confusions and sidelines detachment. 

Which of course is the whole idea.


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