What do Lee Rigby and Allison Parker have in common? I know this was a couple of years back, but when you give it some thought and consider the creation of our digital selves…it is turning out to be a small step further to murder.
The Digital Stage
Vester Flanagan II’s muttered word “bitch” was caught as he filmed himself shooting his former TV station colleague Alison Parker in the heart on live television. Parker was conducting an interview in Moneta, Virginia. The shooting occurred in the middle of the segment, and broadcast on WDBJ’s morning news program. Video of the incident showed Parker conducting the interview before at least eight gunshots were heard, followed by screams. The camera fell to the ground, briefly capturing the image of Flanagan holding a Glock 19 9mm pistol.
Lee Rigby’s killers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, after running him over with a car, attacked him with knives and cleavers almost beheading him. They hung around the scene of the horrific drama they scripted, directed, and enacted, machete and cleaver in bloodied hands, precisely for the consummation of this terrible theatrical performance on the only 17-year-old digital stage.
One was an American reporter and one was quintessentially British. One a news reporter for WDBJ Television in Roanoke, Virginia, the other a British soldier, a member of the 2nd Battalion of The Queen’s Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Both suffered at the hands of people focused as much on the scripting of their images as the acts themselves.
Flanagan was not only a murderer enacting a long-nurtured revenge fantasy kindled by a lifetime of perceived humiliation, he was also a film director, actor, and soon-to-be grotesque celebrity.
The two, Adebolajo and Adebowale, had a history of involvement in radical Islamist activities and had been arrested at violent protests and then released. One was previously recorded saying, “Don’t be scared of them, do not be scared of the police or the cameras. You are here only to please Allah. We only want those who are sincere to Allah. Purify your intention.” They, too, were directors, actors, and grotesque celebrities.
Our Sense of Self
Day-to-day, the extent to which we are conscious of our “self” fluctuates. Absorbed in work, games, or happy conversation, we are largely unselfconscious. But from time to time, my view of myself—me—enters my consciousness, usually when something out of the ordinary, challenging, or threatening happens, like the boss telling me I am not doing my job.
When the Self Implodes
Vester Flanagan’s life was one big encounter with such a threat, arising out of an inflated ego trying to cope with the reality of failure in relationships and jobs. This chronic, gnawing discrepancy between his ideal and his actual self, meant that he would seldom have been unselfconsciously absorbed in the mundane pleasures of life and work.
He was an angry, brooding, humiliated man with a mind filled with images of his own wounded ego.
The lives of the two killers of Rigby were no less troubled. The assailants actually remained at the scene, asking bystanders to call the police. At the arrival of the police, they charged the security line and were both wounded, arrested, and taken to separate hospitals. Their reason, stated and recorded by The Daily Telegraph, was out of anger that Muslims were being killed every day by British soldiers. They swore to never stop until Muslims were left alone, all choreographed and recorded for future viewing.
They, too, were angry, brooding with feelings of humiliation, men filled with images of their own wounds and wounded egos.
My Life as a Celebrity
The world has changed in the past 25 years in more ways that we can imagine, but never more than in the digital universe of social media. In this new world, wound and ego expand into a new dimension where it is not just “me” filling my conscious mind, it is a vast digital stage where me is both the director and possibly the heroic actor. In my imagined fantasies, I not only see myself exacting revenge on my humiliators, I visualize the scripted scenes in detail, skillfully directed, and most of all, I see in my imagination the immeasurable digital audience praising my celebrity and in turn, softening the hurt of an individual’s humiliation.
How Me Has Changed
The way we all have come to think of me has changed dramatically over the last 400 years. During the 1600s, by way of example, mirrors were less than uncommon in ordinary houses—they were downright rare—and the concept of “self” was diffuse and rather a communal affair. Me was family, and my social position in town. My role and an ego-inflating sense of individuality was more a feature of the upper classes, though even these egos were profoundly delineated by concepts of “honor,” “duty,” and comparable group-oriented values.
The Me Generation
Then, post-World War II, the “me generation” was born. The me generation is a phrase coined by Tom Wolfe to describe a generation of people born between 1946 and 1964 for whom ‘me’ had a distinct, unique feeling. The needy individual flourished as never before in history, partially resulting in an enormous increase in rates of depression.
Facebook and Self Obsession
And the finally, on February 4th, 2004, something happened that changed the nature of me even more dramatically—Facebook was launched. In the flash of a computer keystroke, no longer was me just a self-obsessed baby boomer preoccupied with diet, mortality, and purpose in life. Now me has become a publisher, a film director, a cameraman, an actor and—we are always hoping—a celebrity.
Suddenly we have this sort of proscribed distance from the world. How can you do your job as publisher/director/actor if you don’t disengage from the distractions of the reality you experience daily? Now you are constantly on the prowl for images to tweet or upload and so when you see a jet plane crash onto cars on a busy road, suddenly it is your job to do your job, because isn’t everyone a journalist these days? Or at least doesn’t the access to the public make you a primary source?
Or maybe you are a young Muslim in your bedroom in England, coordinating with a brother in Belgium who has been grooming you on Facebook into the one “true cause.” Gradually he gets you to watch increasingly rough films on the jihadi website; first explosions, now the hangings, then burnings, and finally the beheadings. You watch with fascination the Jihadi John films, and are swept away with the music and begin to imagine yourself as the hero in these scenes, a someone, a superstar.
You learn to switch between perspectives in your mind’s eye as you think about travelling to maybe Syria. Your new brother wants you to. First, you are your own body, your fingers curled around the AK-47. Now you switch the camera angle to your new brother’s image, imagining his smile of approval, then to the panning camera, imagining a vast audience of admiring brothers and sisters roaring with approval. You are now the detached and all-powerful director of this film. You are the creator.
An Observer in Your Own World
Men are indeed much more potentially homicidal than women and with that in mind, never in history has the technology existed to supply so many men with the murderous mental images and detached, the safe film-director stance, required for the cruelty that the killer in Virginia or the two killers in England showed their victims.
Social media then—and the 24-hour news channels which so eagerly serve and support them—are the continuing fuel for a new sort of egotism. It is one where you view yourself not from inside your own head, but rather from some imagined camera angle viewed by millions of fans.
You view yourself as an actor in the great film of your life.
Reality and fantasy finally do collapse into each other. Consider a man in Lorain, Ohio. There, a 17-year old lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a home, another SUV, and a tree. Police say that when Paul Pelton arrived on the scene, he made no attempt to save the driver and his passenger’s life. Instead, he filmed the ugly scene on his cellphone, and allegedly later tried to sell the footage to “at least two news organizations.”
We have become directors and actors in our own films in which we can fulfill our fantasies of celebrity, either now or posthumously, and hence achieve a sort of digital immortality, all in an attempt to gain something different from Lee Rigby and Allison Parker, who we now know were all too mortal.
What say you?. Are you living your life or are you curating and directing it to some end? How is that working for you?
Give me a call so we can talk about it… schedule a time for a call and let’s give it a go.
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