A year after her death, Dianaspeak is everywhere. Mark Ryan reaches out to fellow survivors
A few days after being arrested for lewd conduct in a public toilet in California in April, George Michael appeared on television to explain his behaviour to the world. By his actions, he explained, he had put himself in 'an extremely vulnerable position'. This was a particularly sly and inventive way of recounting events. Here was a man of immense wealth and fame who had gone to a well-known cruising joint with the purpose of getting some sort of exotic sexual pleasure. Yet he spoke of the incident as if he was somehow the victim in the whole affair, because he had put himself in 'an extremely vulnerable position'. Strictly speaking, I suppose, this is not untrue. One of the obvious side effects of exposing your backside to the public is that you do make it more vulnerable than if it was covered up in a pair trousers. In that sense, every crime puts the criminal in an extremely vulnerable position. But it is a perverse way of looking at the incident. George Michael was the prime agent in the case. He was a victim only in the sense that he was caught in the act.
George Michael was a close friend of the late Princess Diana, the most illustrious exponent of the language of the victim. Even though she lived at the apex of society, with a powerful publicity apparatus at her disposal, Diana often spoke of herself in terms which emphasised her own vulnerability. Her fame as a public figure became bound up in her later years with the way she projected herself as the hapless object of stronger forces, whether these happened to be the royal family, the paparazzi, or her own digestive tract.
Michael's statement captured the two essential features of a new pattern of speech made common by the late Diana. The first is the sense of oneself as victim. The second is the almost solipsistic attitude towards the world outside oneself, which has no independent existence beyond its relation to one's own feelings. This twofold character explains one of the paradoxes both of Diana and of her mode of speech: on the one hand a low opinion of herself as the object of other wills, on the other, a ferocious narcissism. The result is that the world at large becomes reinterpreted from the standpoint of one's own hurt.
Exponents of Dianaspeak, however, do not like to see themselves simply as victims. The phrase 'I am not a victim, I am a survivor', amply conveys the image of a world which will only hurt if not held at bay by a state of permanent self-awareness and self-assertion. In order to justify this narcissistic state, the scale of the hurt must always be exaggerated.
A favourite method of dramatising or magnifying the hurt is the use of the emotional scar, much employed by Diana in relation to her bulimia. The statement 'the scars on your body heal; but it's the scars inside, the ones that you can't see, that never heal', is now repeated almost verbatim by people suffering the aftermath of the most diverse experiences, including sexual abuse, eighteenth-century colonial dispossession, or just not being treated very nicely.
By definition, an emotional scar can never heal, and can even be passed down through the generations. Like statements of religious belief, the doctrine of the emotional scar has a certain unchallengeable madness about it. Since the emotional scar has no mere corporeal existence, then it is plausible to suggest that it will never heal. The emotional scar bears a striking resemblance to the doctrine of original sin in the way that it supposedly determines one's entire life. But where original sin can be nullified only on quitting fleshly existence for the next life, the emotional scar can be amply soothed by the balm of self-indulgence in this one.
The deeper the emotional scar the greater the need to 'speak out'. Ten years ago only feminists and the so-called loony left spoke out. The phrase tended to conjure up images of unkempt women venting their frustrations while their sisters gathered around to offer support. Now even the most banal ventilations of clerics, company directors or politicians are apt to be described as 'speaking out'.
'Speaking out' carries with it a host of connotations. It implies a grievance waiting to be aired, as well as a barrier standing in one's way which has prevented its airing up till now. Usually this barrier will be some incarnation of 'the powers that be', or, as Diana described them, 'the Establishment' (to which, of course, she never belonged herself). But who it is one is speaking out against need never be stated explicitly. It can simply be 'Them'.
Speaking out suggests a long prelude of smouldering anger and resentment which one never had the confidence to 'give voice to' (a related phrase), but which has finally erupted in a triumphant moment of self-realisation. This cathartic effect can be further enhanced if it is directed against 'a conspiracy of silence'. The perpetrators of sexual abuse, for example, are often said to be shielded within a larger social network, whether it be a religious order, a state institution or just plain old patriarchal society. Whatever form the network may take, it wields such power that it can create a cushion of silence around its activities, requiring a particularly defiant effort to speak out.
Those suffering terminal illness often speak out, implying either that a conspiracy exists to deny the scale of suffering caused by a particular condition, or even that the illness itself may be part of some gigantic conspiracy. Speaking out first migrated from the fringes when Aids victims 'found the courage to speak out about their suffering'. The implication was that some nameless group had been actively suppressing the scale of suffering endured by those dying of Aids, or even that the virus itself was somehow the work of sinister homophobes rather than a freak of nature. The way that certain 'lobbies' have been associated with the promotion of lethal illness - the car lobby, the smoking lobby and now even the caffeine lobby - has had the further effect of connecting the suffering of the individual with some vast but intangible conspiracy.
Those who speak out rarely do so just for themselves. They often do it after hearing lots of voices. There was a time when only schizophrenics heard voices. Now, anybody planning to speak out should hear as many voices as possible. The voices are those of the silenced millions who have suffered in the same way but who lack the courage or confidence to defy 'Them' and speak out for themselves. It was Diana, after all, who gave voice to all those suffering in silence from bulimia, thereby promoting a more 'in your face' approach to bingeing and vomiting. In this way, while speaking entirely about yourself, you can convey the impression that what you are doing is an act of self-sacrifice performed on behalf of others. In the same way, those who speak out often describe themselves as the 'tip of the iceberg'. To my knowledge, nobody has ever spoken out and said 'but I think my misfortune is just the luck of the draw', or 'this problem must be very rare indeed'.
Speaking out is closely related to reaching out, in fact very often you speak out for and reach out to the same people. It was Diana who turned reaching out into a public spectacle. Reaching out could be confused with old-style charity work, but there is an important difference. Whereas only those suffering some visible handicap are in need of charity, everybody needs to be reached out to. This is because reaching out assumes that we are all in some way emotionally scarred or damaged. People who are highly successful, for example, could be suffering from perfectionist syndrome as a result of bad childhood experiences - all of which will remain concealed unless somebody reaches out to them and gives them the space in which to articulate their vulnerability.
Like speaking out, reaching out is a very self-flattering thing to do because it shows off your powers of empathy. It can also be a great put-down if you are reaching out to somebody who does not particularly want to be smothered by your embrace. Ireland's former president Mary Robinson was great at reaching out, especially to Northern Ireland's Unionists, while her successor, Mary McAleese, wants not only to reach out, but also to build lots of bridges. Reaching out to those with strongly opposed views is one way of saying that you don't take their views very seriously.
There are of course certain recalcitrants who cannot be reached out to. Such people are described as being 'out of touch'. This used to mean somebody who was just not clued up or did not understand what was going on around them. Now it means anybody who criticises the sort of emotional excess associated with the Diana cult. By these standards LM would have to be considered a seriously out-of-touch magazine. The response to the publication of the book Faking It, which criticised, among other things, the emotionally excessive public response to the death of Diana, was also significant in this respect. The critics never simply said that the authors had got it wrong; instead, they were criticised for being 'out of touch'.
For Dianaspeakers, this is another way of saying that the concept of being right or wrong about something has no meaning. Such categories are far too heavy and judgemental for their tender sensibilities. Instead of right and wrong, there are only different ways of feeling about the world, some of which are in touch and some of which are out of touch. People who are out of touch are generally those who place a high premium on the faculty of reason. Those in touch believe that reason is just a masculine phallacy (geddit?) from which we can all be liberated once we accept our vulnerability and recognise our emotional scars.
People who are out of touch will also be deficient in their capacity for caring, and in their general 'awareness'. Looked at more closely, the verbs 'to care' and 'to be aware' have undergone a curious transformation in recent years. For those given to Dianaspeak a statement like 'I care' or 'I am aware' is really meant as an object-free proposition. You are not meant to ask 'who or what do you care for?', or 'what are you aware of ?', because the speaker is concerned with her own emotional intelligence, not with anything so banal as the outside world. In fact careness and awareness are so closely bound up with emotional intelligence, that they can sometimes coexist with a state of almost complete indifference to the world at large.
This attitude was strikingly demonstrated by Diana herself when she declared her semi-retirement from public life shortly after her divorce from Prince Charles. In retiring from the world she quite casually withdrew her support from most of the charities she had hitherto supported, an action which naturally enough upset the charities concerned. But what was most interesting was that Diana seemed genuinely hurt and puzzled by their reaction. For a woman who prided herself on her ability to reach out and communicate with others, this obtuse reaction could perhaps be explained by the fact that, as far as she was concerned, she had already adequately demonstrated her capacity for caring. Once she had achieved that then why not go off doing other interesting things like toning her body or sailing around the Mediterranean? Little wonder, then, that she should feel the charities were being downright churlish in criticising her.
One of the more notable achievements (if that is the right word) of Dianaspeak is that while conveying an image of selflessness and devotion to others, it conceals in reality an attitude of narcissistic self-absorption well symbolised by George Michael's attentions to himself in the public toilet. It was unfortunate for him that it was an officer of the LAPD that should remind him of the existence of a world independent of his own sensory organs.
'Speaking out' in an interview with the BBC's Martin Bashir
Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998