Public Grief

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jack Layton, like any politician of his stature and seniority, touched the lives of many. He probably shook more hands in a week than many do in a year, spoke with Canadians of all stripes in every corner of the country and made decisions in Toronto City Hall and Parliament that would have repercussions, good and bad, for hundreds of thousands of people.

There should be no surprise, then, at the outpouring of sympathy following his death. But as when any public figure is mourned by the masses, there was also the corollary backlash in some quarters — not against the man himself, necessarily, but against the notion that people might be saddened by the death of someone whom they did not personally know.

I must admit that I’m of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, I do find people’s tendency to rush to Facebook and Twitter to make grand statements about the greatness of the deceased a little irritating, not least because such statements often exaggerate the person’s achievements and qualities — it strikes me a little “me-too-ish.” And certainly there are some people for whom being the first one to deliver such news is more important than the actual news itself.
But the cynics are wrong as well because the sorrow people are feeling certainly isn’t fake.

No, I didn’t know Layton at all. I didn’t even agree with his politics, and I often found him to be an irritating presence on the Canadian political scene, but he was still a person that I encountered on a consistent basis.

Of course I know, intellectually, that those encounters were mostly with an image on a television screen. Yet on a more basic level, I cannot help but feel a connection. He engaged me, politically, though I never had the means to return the favour. He spoke to me, although I couldn’t speak back. And so I’m saddened, just as I would be for the passing of someone much closer to me — socially speaking — than he was.

I suppose it’s probably an artifact of human psychology; in our hunter-gatherer days, it is quite possible that bands of Homo sapiens likely never topped one or two hundred individuals. In such a situation, the odds were good that anyone encountered was likely somebody one would know for a very long time, even a lifetime.

Hence, I think our brains are wired to make an immediate emotional connection with anyone we meet. Evolution just didn’t account for the world of the 21st century, where technology permits us to “meet” people in ways that a primitive human could never have dreamed.

And in some ways this is not a new phenomenon at all. It is no strange thing to be moved by a work of fiction, as people have been for thousands of years. And the characters in those are not even real.

Ultimately, it’s okay, and even healthy, that we feel a pang of emotion at a time like this. For many Canadians, Jack Layton represented values that are dear to them and was an important leader. For me, he was a man who spoke to me often, through broadcast and print. Though I and most other Canadians never met him, the connection that we formed was very, very real.

Greg Sacks is a second-year student in the faculty of law at the U of M.