Social media reactions to celebrity death have taken on a predictable pattern: an outpouring of shock with expressions of grief, followed by a ghoulish need to know all the details, to see the scene of the death and the family in mourning. Then a post-mortem dissection of all the perceived flaws the celebrity had. Things along the lines of, "I always hated his band, anyway," or "his movies were all crap, I'm glad he's dead," begin popping up on Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps these insensitive comments are made out of frustration over the constant bombardment of, "R.I.P celebrity, gone too soon," and "OMG crying right now guys, celebrity died," across every available platform. Maybe they're just poor attempts at appearing tough or edgy. In the wake of a celebrity's death from addiction, these comments invariably take on an insidious tone of condemnation.
The tragic death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman this weekend elicited just such a response. The actor died of a presumed drug overdose. Less than an hour after the news broke, Twitter and Facebook were swamped with comments saying, "I have no sympathy," and "he did it to himself." "He knew the risk," some asserted. Words like "weak" and "selfish" were used to describe and dismiss the man, dehumanizing him as an "addict." A filthy, immoral less-than who deserved his fate, by virtue of his failings.
What causes this reaction? Is it an impulse to distance one's self from mortality? It's far easier to brush off death if the death in question seems impossible or improbable as a personal threat. Or is it that our societal discomfort with anything that falls outside of the puritanical norm-- alcohol, drugs-- renders us unable to see addicts as human beings deserving of empathy and understanding?
Perhaps the most dangerous component of these outpourings of social media censure is the affect that these words, "weak," "selfish," "totally avoidable," have on people struggling with addiction. Reaching out for help is difficult and embarrassing, and made harder when one sees a trusted friend or family member denouncing all addicts as filthy drug users who deserve to die. It's easy to pronounce addiction "totally avoidable," but what help is that sentiment to someone who is already suffering the physical and mental compulsions of the disease?
How do we measure our sympathy, if one can "have no sympathy" for a man who was robbed of his life by a debilitating, demoralizing disease? How much does sympathy cost, how difficult is it to harvest, that no one has any to spare? The figures are written on overwrought Facebook macros: this many soldiers died today, and all you care about is some drug addict. It's a cheap and offensive ploy to shame those who do genuinely care into reserving their precious sympathy. The belief that a person can and should only feel grief over one sad event at a time is a truly disturbing estimate of our emotional capacity. It also fails to honor its subject by ignoring members of the armed forces who struggle with addiction. Are they less worthy of our attention and our sparingly given sympathy because they "knew the risks" of both their jobs and the substance they abuse?
No one can deny that the toll taken on the families and friends of an addicted person is a deep and painful one. We see their humanity, we see something being done to them. We see no humanity in the person who made poor choices. When one of these individuals has a fatal relapse, the resulting feelings of superiority and intelligence gained by others are similar to what we feel rehashing the coulda-woulda-shouldas of a sports event. It's a morbid version of armchair quarterbacking, in which everyone boasts about which plays they would have run to turn down that first bump at a party.
Whatever motivates us to blame and dehumanize an addicted person, it is a cultural view that must be shifted. As long as the public perception of "addict" is a selfish, immoral person who acts out of unprovoked malice, we will never break out of the cycle of shame and discouragement that prevents alcoholics and drug abusers from seeking treatment.
Perhaps demystifying the experience of drug addiction is the key to creating a more productive national dialogue. We must retire forever our expectation that every addicted person will enter rehab and, like the movies, exit without risk of relapse due to the noble, purposeful change of heart they had during treatment. We must stop embracing narratives that tell us addicts are dangerous reprobates whose recovery exists only to inspire others, and that any expression of caring feeling toward their predicament will ultimately enable their destructive behaviors. But to escape these misconceptions, we would have to listen without judgement to the voices of people we consider "weak" and "selfish." We would have to have sympathy.
An earlier version of this post appeared at Trout Nation