Wednesday, April 17, 2013


We love to put people in boxes. To idolise them, or demonise them. The recent death of Margaret Thatcher, whose funeral took place this morning, is a reminder of this. But we don’t only do this with politicians and celebrities. We do it to our neighbours, against whom we hold a grudge or with whom we become infatuated. We do it to ourselves, whenever we claim to be, essentially, a good person – when we refuse to take responsibility for our own complicity in what is wrong about our society; and whenever we tell ourselves that we are, fundamentally, a bad person – when we refuse to take responsibility for our own responsibility to help shape the world for better.

Not only do we put people in boxes; we go over the box again and again, with the result that the image we hold – and project – is distorted a little more each time.

I am reminded of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the Simulacrum, the breakdown of the relationship between representation and reality, between signs and what they refer to. Baudrillard identified four stages in this process:

[1] an image that is a reflection of a reality

[2] an image that is a masking and perversion of that reality

[3] an image that marks the absence of the reality

[4] an image that bears no relation to any reality – where reality is redundant and has been replaced by hyper-reality.

Consider Margaret Thatcher. Here was a living, aging human being. An image that reflects that would require a great deal of information. A photograph contains huge amounts of information; a serious biography, even more so. An honest assessment – a sober judgement – of her life, and yours and mine, cannot be represented simplistically. But even here, we are removed from reality: this is a reflection, and a reflection – like my reflection in the mirror – is already a distortion.

The next stage is a masking and perversion of that reality: in Margaret Thatcher’s case, whether by satirical political cartoonists or her own propagandists. In the case of you and me and our neighbour, the subtle – and not so subtle – ways in which we build up an image that begins to obliterate the Other, or the Self...until that image makes it hard for us to see the reality of a human being created and honoured and loved by God.

The third stage is familiar to us if we consider politicians and other celebrities: people we have never met, and yet believe that we know them and can pass judgement on them, for good or ill. This is easier to live with than reality, which is complex and fragile, and requires something of us; yet it leaves us unsatisfied, holding at arm’s length the inter-dependence we were created for.

As the final stage is reached, images multiply and take on a life of their own. The hyper-real Thatchers – Thatcher the Saviour of Britain and Defender of the Free World; Thatcher the Wicked Witch and Bitch of Grantham – obliterate any possibility of serious evaluation of a real person, or of the complex ways in which relationships with real people shape us and we them.

In the end, we all get put in a box: and that box is lowered into the ground, or pushed into a furnace. And that in itself ought to give us cause to reflect, on how we view ourselves and how we view our neighbour, on our love of boxes and obliteration without hope...and, just perhaps, the possibility that, inevitable though this process may be, it need not have the last word.

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