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Mourning sickness

Blair's Britain AD - After Diana
Beware the rampant id
The lonely crowd
A tyrannical new religion
The new protocol
Tragic lives

A tyrannical new religion

Mark Ryan

'In its intolerance and self-serving piety, it is more than a match for any fanaticism the Catholic Church ever foisted on the world'

The great public outpouring of grief and emotion surrounding the death of Diana had a deeply religious character about it, with its obligatory rituals, its unerring sense of where good and evil lie and in its saintly icons. It is the religion of feeling, the worship of the emotional. Those who fail to conform to the new orthodoxy, be they the royal family or the Scottish FA, risk invoking a furious rebuke. In its intolerance and self-serving piety, the new religion is more than a match for any fanaticism the Catholic Church ever foisted on the world.

Unlike traditional religion, the religion of feelings has no doctrine or dogmas. Ideas can only be an impediment to the uninhibited expression of the emotions. And the further you get from the emotions, the more you depart from the path of righteousness. Only the immediate emotional spasm has the mark of authenticity and truth, because only it is untainted with what is most hateful to the new religion - intelligence. How appropriate that the first saint of the new religion should be a woman who, by her own admission, was 'as thick as two short planks'.

The week between Diana's death and her funeral was like a vast Oprah Winfrey show in which mourners competed to show the devastation they felt at the loss of the woman who made the bleeding heart her own personal badge of honour, and to fume against those who declined to show the same levels of emotional incontinence. The strength of the new religion meant that even those who did not feel the same way felt unable to say so. The emotional spasm not only became an acceptable form of public expression, but actually became the only acceptable form of public expression. This was particularly remarkable in a country which has always prided itself on the virtues of restraint. All of a sudden, such virtues were signs of people 'in denial', concealing something sordid and most likely in need of a course of therapy in order to show them the true light.

In the hierarchy of virtue, it is those who feel most immediately and most intensely who have access to the highest truth. The holy ones of the new religion are those who suffer most - the homeless, Aids victims, or those with eating disorders. However, because these holy ones feel the world so intensely they have great difficulty in making their suffering understood by the rest of us. That is why they need so many interpreters to pass on their wisdom and the deeper meaning of their suffering. It was these interpreters - sometimes known as charity workers - who took pride of place at the funeral procession. One of the interpreters explained the rationale for leaving the holy ones behind: 'We decided not to bring home- less people along. We wondered whether anybody vulnerable could take the pressure.'

The strength of the new religion was tested and showed its hand with the funeral oration of Earl Spencer. The fact that it was obvious from the previous Sunday morning that he was out of control, full of bitterness and vengeance should have sent any number of alarm bells ringing. There was a time when such a man would have been taken aside, plied with strong drink and told to shut up. Yet now it was precisely such a man who could best capture the spirit of the occasion. Spencer's emotional speech summed up many features of the new religion - Diana's unique ability to understand suffering because of the suffering she endured herself, something which gave her that sense of goodness and which put her at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from the editors of the tabloid newspapers. He lashed out at the media, the royals, the world that was not good enough for the beautiful Diana. It was a fire and brimstone sermon of pure feeling, to which the crowd outside responded with wild applause, and to which those gathered inside the cathedral spinelessly assented.

If the new emotionalism is a revolt against intelligence, it is also a caricature of true passion. While there were no inhibitions on the expression of grief, only grief was allowed. Anything which departed from the set script, or which smacked of any emotion other than grief was deemed unacceptable. This was most evident in the public demand that the Queen should grieve publicly on cue. That the Queen may have been subject to genuine emotions which meant that she did not feel like grieving, or at least not in the way outlined for her, seems not to have crossed anybody's mind.

Given the role of the late Diana in discrediting her dynasty, it is most unlikely that Her Majesty was bawling her eyes out into her pillow on hearing news of the accident in Paris. She was no doubt shocked and saddened by the news, but her feelings must also have been complex and contradictory. With or without a stiff upper lip, it would have been difficult to convey the many layers of emotion while at the same time keeping pace with the frenzy of grief sweeping the country. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that they decided to stay put in Balmoral and look at the trees.

What they failed to realise is that when grief and mourning are demanded, complex emotions are not allowed. Complexity implies an element of thinking and reflection which can only pollute the pure goodness of feeling. That is the vilest sin for the new religion.

It is ironic that for all the emphasis placed on the authenticity of feeling, anybody who did not want to be a part of the Oprah-style show was pressurised to put on a bogus show of emotion. The casual disdain for true feeling was matched by the militant insistence of many to parade the authenticity of their own emotions with all the paraphernalia which has become so familiar - the flowers, the teddy bears and the mawkish inscriptions. It is because the grief was so staged and so shallow that it could quickly turn to self-righteous anger. As with Dunblane, it was not long before national grief turned to grievance, and grievance to vengeance. That the royal family could become a target for popular hatred in the space of a week is a chilling reminder of the power of the new emotionalism. How would somebody less well-established in popular affections fare if this sort of venomous witch-hunt was turned on them?

The public bitterness is further compounded by the strong element of self-loathing in it all. It is only possible to make somebody like Diana look so saintly if there is a simultaneous belief that the rest of us are in the gutter. Diana was too good for us sinners. Add to that the widespread belief that we are all responsible for her death, because we bought the tabloid newspapers which exploited her image, and you have a lethal cocktail of self-hatred.

The greatest myth of all about the sanctity of feelings is that they are above politics and political manipulation. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely when people cast aside their critical faculties and give themselves over to the free flow of emotions that they are enslaved to forces beyond their control and become fodder for manipulation. Tony Blair's lip-quivering performance on the day of the accident was hailed as a perfect response for the heartfelt spontaneity with which it captured the mood of the nation, and was contrasted with what might have been if John Major was still in power. It turned out later that Blair had gone through the performance beforehand down to the last detail with his press secretary Alistair Campbell. Manipulative politicians can only thrive on the primacy of feelings.

Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997

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