Like most people, I am a consumer of media, reading blogs, news sites, and Facebook. I listen to news radio, watch the morning news and occasionally will pick up a real newspaper, although USA Today hardly qualifies. And like most people, I’m absolutely exhausted by the 24/7 news culture, bombarding all senses with whatever ongoing news story that can be sensationalized at the moment. Whether Whitney Houston’s death or the ill-fated cruise ship crash, the inherent sadness to learning something bad has happened is unavoidable. But, to be frank, I’m tired of it.
The thing that irritates me is the rampant overuse of the word “tragedy” to describe said events. From what little I remember from High School English class, the term “tragedy” means something very different than the way it is currently employed in the modern media stories. From the Wikipedia page on the subject, tragedy is defined as “a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in the viewing.” Pleasure? Catharsis? Doubtful that this is what the media is intending, at least on the surface, by presenting the gory details of sad things that happen. Is Whitney’s unexpected death pleasurable? God, I hope not. Cathartic? Unless you didn’t care for her, probably not.
The online dictionary defines it thusly: “a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction.” So, perhaps with Whitney, should her death truly be due to her addiction and subsequent overdose, to use the term tragedy somehow implies that she had it coming, that it was her destiny due to her own flawed character, something which I find to be insensitive considering how many people famous or not who struggle with the same demons. And to define her end as “tragic” is a pretty defeatist way of looking at substance abuse in general because many people can and do overcome it and lead perfectly healthy lives.
Furthermore, what did the victims of the cruise ship crash do to deserve their fate? Was their bourgeois indulgence in a week’s vacation so irritating to the god of the sea that they were struck down for it? Was their untimely end cathartic or pleasurable to us? Unless one is sadistic enough to indulge in such schadenfreude, probably not.
Not forgetting the Sugarland concert accident where the heavy winds caused a stage collapse, killing five, last summer. Or the Haitian earthquake. Or the Japanese Tsunami. Or Hurricane Katrina. You get the idea. What makes them sad and terrible is not the same thing as being “tragic.” Using the word over and over to attribute the same implications as one would with a Romeo and Juliet type scenario takes away from the severity of the real life events. And while the perversion of our voyeuristic society does lend itself far too easily to the fascination with the grim, gross or cataclysmic, we owe it to ourselves to look beyond the idea itself of tragedy and realize what the literary device is intended to show in the first place. I imagine that the employment of the tragic scenario means to show how we should be aware of our character flaws and do our best to preserve or counteract our fate to prevent the downfall or destruction.
Instead, we simply shake our heads, clucking to ourselves about how awful it is that such and such happened, and then go back to whatever it is we’re doing. While the online dictionaries have been updated to include the common, erroneous usage of the word, it is insulting to those who have perished in so-called tragedies and their families when the media uses this term. Sad things happen all the time, irony, fate, random acts of the universe, acts of god, nothing really encompassing the true severity of it. What results instead is the burn out of the term itself, and a desensitizing of the over-exposed public to real suffering and pain in the world.