Tragedy and the “Prize” of Fame

There is something that makes me a little uncomfortable about Anderson Cooper’s coverage of the school shooting in Connecticut.  I noticed it the first time in his coverage of the movie theater shooting in Colorado.  It is the earnest insistence on not using the shooter’s name.

I am sure that his motives in taking this stand are noble, he assumes as most of surely do, that mass shooters are motivated by a desire for fame, to make a mark, however sinister, on history.

Clearly a lot of people agree with this stance, if a viral Facebook post falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman is an indication.  Focus on the victims and the heroes not the shooter.

Yet all of this reveals an assumption in our culture that makes me uneasy.  That is, fame is the big prize.  Being the most known, regardless of the reasons, makes you somehow the most admired.

Some time ago I read a quote in a book called The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy that struck me: “John Lennon of the Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus,” he wrote.  “As far as immediate fame goes, he was right.  But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: If Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”

It seems as though we have lost the sense that there is such a thing as negative known-ness.  Not fame but shame.

In Puritan times, those who upset the community were held up to public ridicule.  They were placed in the stocks.  That made them the most visible members of the community at that moment.  In other words, the most famous.  No one confused this type of fame with honor.

Now someone who goes on a reality television show and becomes known as an obnoxious jerk is a “reality star.”

A few years ago, Elizabeth Edwards appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about her book that dealt with her feelings about her husband, John Edwards, affair.  She did so under the condition that the mistress’ name not be used.  The underlying assumption was that being publicly known, even as a mistress in the middle of a scandal, is a prize.

After the Colorado shooting, a grieving, angry parent wanted to know why the shooter was being shown on television when it was the victims who should be featured.  I understood this man’s grief, I empathized with his desire to see his son honored and known.  I could empathize with how he might feel seeing the face of evil everywhere, hearing reporters digging for information on his rotten life as if he were an important person.

Yet fame is not the prize.  If the world were fair, his son would never have come to the attention of the general public at all.  If the world were fair, he would be some guy who went to a movie one night, and came home and no one outside his circle of friends would never have heard a thing about him.  Most of the admirable people in life have never been and will never be recorded in history.  It does not mean we value the spectacularly known faces of the famous more than the anonymous people who change the course of our lives day in and day out.

I should not know the name of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  None of us should ever have heard of her.

The desire to know the name of the killer, to find out who did this thing, where he came from, what might have brought him to this act is not only understandable, but also necessary if we want to be better prepared to deal with troubled people in the future. The fact that we seek to know his name is not an honor we bestow upon him.  It is a piece of a messy puzzle we’re trying to assemble.

Anderson Cooper, and the CNN evening announcers, may be right though.  Given our cultural biases, other would-be killers will no doubt view the media attention as an honor.  They might seek the prize of infamy.  So even as the underlying assumption about fame and honor makes me uncomfortable, I do applaud this attempt by the news network to be responsible and not part of the problem, even as I wonder how successful this “don’t say his name” tactic is likely to be.

As Anderson Cooper says, we should honor and remember the victims.  Yet, those who can truly honor them are the ones who knew who they were in life, not only their manner of death.  We, the general public, can share our sympathy, our compassion, our support, our love, but we can’t truly honor the memory of someone we did not know.  It is only in our power to support those who did.

Making the victims public is not necessarily the greatest honor we can give them.  We can also honor them with privacy.  Talking about someone on television can be a tribute, and some families will long to have people acknowledge their loss.  They will long for that affirmation that their loved one existed.  They did not pass through the world unnoticed.  In such a case the brief, respectful spotlight is an honor.  But being televised is not by definition an honor.  We need to be very careful to recognize what we are doing for ourselves, to fill our own needs, to answer our own pressing questions.  Our desire to know is natural, as is our desire for catharsis, for those emotional stories that make us weep.  But we should be careful not to confuse those things with something we are doing as a tribute to the victims.  When it comes to how to honor those who were lost we need to be good listeners.  Let those who are grieving tell us, not the other way around.

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