Death by Treacle

Sentiment surfaces fast and runs hot in public life, dumbing it down and crippling intimacy in private life


Listen to a narrated version of this essay:

When I was a child, I knew national flags by the color and design alone; today I could know diseases the same way. This occurs to me on my morning commute as I note the abundance of magnetic awareness ribbons adhering to cars. A ribbon inventory on the Internet turns up 84 solid colors, color combinations, and color patterns, although there are certainly more. The most popular colors must multitask to raise awareness of several afflictions and disasters at once. Blue is a particularly hard-working color, the new black of misfortunes; 43 things jockey to be the thing that the blue ribbon makes us aware of.

Awareness-raising and fundraising 5K races augment the work of the ribbons. Maryland, where I live, had 28 5K races in one recent two-month period. I think it might be possible to chart a transcontinental route cobbled together entirely by annual 5K charity and awareness runs. Some memorialize a deceased loved one or raise funds for an affliction in the family (“Miles for Megan,” for example, or “Bita’s Run for Wellness”); others raise awareness of problems ranging from world health to Haiti to brain injury. A friend of mine who works in fundraising and development once observed, and lamented, that some medical problems were more popular than others and easier to solicit money for. Conditions with sentimental clout elicit more research donations, and cute endangered animals such as the giant panda, the World Wildlife Fund’s mascot, lure more donations than noncuddly ones.

On some days you’ll see makeshift shrines for victims of car accidents or violence by the side of the road, placed next to a mangled guardrail or wrapped around a lamppost. As more people hear of the tragedy, teddy bears, flowers, and notes accumulate. Princess Diana’s was the biggest of such shrines, a mountain of hundreds of thousands of plastic-sheathed bouquets outside her residence. Queen Elizabeth resisted the presumptuous momentum of all the grief but finally relented and went to inspect the flower shrine and its handwritten messages, a concession to sentiment depicted in the movie The Queen. Maybe I was the only one in the theater who thought the Queen was right; I rooted for her propriety over Tony Blair’s dubious advice that she drag the monarchy into the modern age by publicly displaying a sentiment she probably didn’t feel. The mourners didn’t even know Diana, the queen reasoned by an obsolete logic of restrained stoicism, and the palace flag didn’t fly at half-mast even for more illustrious figures. But she caved in the end. We most always do.

Sentiment surfaces fast and runs hot in public life, and it compels our attention. On good days I dimly register this makeshift iconography of people’s sorrows, losses, and challenges. Some of them have been my own, too, but I don’t have ribbons. On my dark days I believe that pink ribbons and 5K runs and temporary shrines and teddy bears and emails exclamation-pointed into a frenzy—the sentimental public culture—is malicious to civil society and impedes in one elegant motion our capacities for deliberation in public life and intimacy in private life. On the days I’m feeling melodramatic I suspect that we are in the grips of death by treacle.

The age of the ribbon unofficially began in 1979 when Penne Laingen, the wife of a hostage in Iran, tied a ribbon around a tree in her yard to memorialize her missing husband. America was “seething with rage” over the hostage crisis, The Washington Post reported. Psychologists proposed ways to handle this “emotional distress.” Laingen, quoted in the article, had taken inspiration from the 1973 popular song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” about a boyfriend, soon to return from prison, who wondered whether his girlfriend still loved him and proposed that she tie a ribbon to signal her enduring love. Laingen tied her ribbon in the same spirit of a collusive vow, intending to keep it there until her husband could take it down himself, which he eventually did. In the Post article she suggested that other Americans could tie ribbons, too, and millions complied, and so her personal code became a sentimental-political icon. Today the flagship yellow ribbon raises awareness of at least six afflictions and events including endometriosis, deployed soldiers, bladder cancer, suicide, bone cancer, and the Australian 2009 Victorian bushfire victims.


Around the time of yellow ribbons Americans also got the exclamation-point typewriter key and victim impact statements—two other suggestive, modest cameos in the drift toward a more sentimental public culture.

The exclamation point is singular among all punctuation because it has no true grammatical function in English except to amplify a feeling—excitement, enthusiasm, or shock—presumably not adequately conveyed by the words selected. It wasn’t even a standard feature on typewriters until the 1970s. Before then, you had to be judicious about that exclamation point because assembling it required that you type a period, backspace, and type an apostrophe above it. Today the exclamation point is used with unprecedented, hyperventilating frequency in correspondence, deployed to soften underlying hostilities or to gin up excitement where no true reason for it suggests itself. As a default punctuation setting, occupying the place in email and texting where the staid, neutral period once stood, the exclamation point is the grammatical mascot of an age that values the public projection of sunny emotions and feeling.

One of the first victim impact statements made outside a civil courtroom was that of the mother of actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered in 1969 by Charles Manson and his family. At the time of Manson’s 1978 parole hearing in California no state specifically allowed victim statements in criminal cases—those brought by government and “We the People.” Today, however, they are a routine part of the sentencing and parole process in every state. According to advocates, they allow victims to personalize the crime and elevate the status of the victim by describing the effect the crime has had on them or their families. Some laud the courtroom ritual as an aid in the emotional recovery of the victim, with the criminal proceeding envisioned as part of a larger therapeutic process. A few legal scholars suggest that the well-intentioned personalization of a crime can blur the line between public justice and private retribution. Conversely, does a criminal deserve a more lenient sentence if his victim was someone of so little charm or social worth that he had no one to testify movingly for him? Of course, rape charges used to be mitigated on just such grounds, that the victim had so little virtue or sexual morals that the crime against her didn’t mean as much.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, public discourse was becoming more personal, sentimental, and emotive (!!). We were becoming victim conscious. Or more precisely, consciousness of victimization was shifting away from poverty and inequality in race, class, or sex and toward individual victims of, say, a hit-and-run accident, a disease, bad luck, or circumstances indisputably not of the victim’s or even society’s own making. The 1980s backlash against federal welfare programs entailed becoming less politically obligated or sentimental toward the poor, sometimes derided as welfare queens (a term attributed to Ronald Reagan). This process coincided, and I do not think accidentally, with the rise in a sentimental public culture for individuals who were victims of unimpeachable, blameless things.

Victim awareness zoomed in from the grand to the granular, from the schematic, sociological view to the fine-grained personal. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), founded in 1980, was a prototype of sentimental political culture and of its victim advocacy in legislatures to protect citizens from misfortunes that were devastating, random, and undeserved. The name of the organization draws on the iconic status and moral authority of motherhood, and its acronym even spells an emotional response.

MADD isn’t wrong in its agenda. How could it be? No one favors drunk driving or supports the heart-wrenching personal anguish of vehicular manslaughter. But any individual, by the shifting sands of luck, could become this sort of victim and fall into this category—even a law-abiding, responsible middle-class person—and that makes the sentimental draw more personal. Not everyone is black or female, nor could we all become so, and only a few will fall from prosperity into poverty. But anyone could be vulnerable to cancer or a badly designed product. These were the right and easy kinds of victims to contemplate in public discourse during years of growing disillusionment and frustration with the downtrodden beneficiaries of welfare.

It’s also my suspicion that the sentimental wave paced, or perhaps helped cause, a decline in American tolerance for risk. As we move from a culture that celebrated risk to a more cautious culture of “risk factors” and “at-risk” people, victims of random, tragic fate become more monstrous to our sense of fairness. This and the corporate-class bogeyman of sentiment-drunk jurors who grant extravagant personal injury awards must explain the growth of product warning labels such as “Shin Pads Cannot Protect Any Part of the Body They Do Not Cover,” “Wheelbarrow Is Not Intended for Highway Use,” “Do Not Use Hair Dryer While Sleeping,” or “Eating Rocks May Lead to Broken Teeth.”

The strong timbre of the victim in public life at this point has tangible and serious effects. Among other things it distorts our sense of risk in foreign and domestic policy. Indeed, victims seem to occupy a special tier of citizenship in public deliberation according to a makeshift sentimental hierarchy; let’s call it inequality. Publicly shared sorrow puts a thumb on the scales of public discourse. The Ground Zero mosque debate of 2010 dramatized this most vividly, as even stalwart defenders of First Amendment freedoms deferred to what the Anti-Defamation League called the “sensitivities” of the 9/11 victims’ families. Before the noise finally abated, Ted Koppel hazarded to propose that the voices of those who had been personally injured shouldn’t count more loudly in public life than, say, the voices of those nonvictims who worried about religious freedom and intolerance.

It’s not that “sensitivities” and personal sentiments have no place in public life. To the contrary, our civil society relies on the creation of affinity and obligation to each other, across distance and difference. The sentimental story can help forge that bond, and it can galvanize social justice. It was true with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and equally so in 1955, when Mamie Till Bradley displayed the mutilated, lynched body of her son, Emmett Till, and insisted on a public, open-casket funeral. The outrage and sympathy that her publicly shared, personal tragedy inspired across the color line is widely credited with having accelerated the civil rights movement. Likewise, and to pick just one historical example among many, the first “Speakouts” by the feminist Redstockings in the late 1960s publicly shared stories of rape and sexual violation—but with the purpose of catalyzing action and making a hidden crime visible for political redress.

Theirs was transformational sentimentalism. For Mamie Till Bradley, and for the Redstockings, the personal confession of grief was the raw material of a longer political process. They told their stories not so that others would defer to their sensitivities or hear their voices more loudly than those of other citizens, but to change the status quo. It’s the difference between a sentimental display that aspires to transform consciousness and one that aspires to raise awareness. The two overlap, certainly, but the former emphasizes I tell you this story so that you will change something. The latter emphasizes I tell you this story so that you will feel something.

If the expanded uses of sentiment had demonstrably benefited our public life over the past three decades—if they had made us more sensitive, kind, compassionate, and gentle toward each other—they might be worth these downsides and perils. But where is the evidence that this is so? Instead, the drift in public life, as observed by P. M. Forni, Jedediah Purdy, Bill Bishop, and others, is toward insensitivity, political incivility if not murderous rage, lack of manners, ironic detachment, cynicism, mutual estrangement and cultural sorting across creeds, and especially in schools, bullying and cyber-bullying. If anything, we seem more brutal and calloused toward each other. True, most of us no longer tolerate, in public, sexual harassment, racist slurs, or cruelty toward those with disabilities. And Americans were outraged when a Rutgers student used a hidden camera to watch his roommate’s sexual encounter with another man, prompting the roommate’s suicide. And yet, we still hear ethically barbarous and morally reprehensible stories of cruelty almost daily.


It may even be the case, ironically, that the proliferation of a cloying, saccharine culture has contributed to a less forgiving, meaner attitude in public life. After all, the flip side of a sentimental public culture of weepy confession, fast if not fraudulent empathy for victims, and the infusion of emotion into public discourse is that it establishes precedent for the public, political currency of all the darker emotions on the spectrum of sentiment: anger, fury, and hatred. When emotions of one, gentle kind are privileged in public culture and invited into political discourse, then emotions of another kind can slide in just as easily and gain stature and political relevance, too.

Today, it so happens that rage is all the rage. Yet the problem is more metaphysical than a matter of Americans having meaner emotions in 2011 than they did in the hyper-self-congratulatory mood of the 2008 presidential election. Our civil society’s syntax and logic are awry. The habit of thought that a pop culture of treacle and a pop culture of anger hold in common is that we needn’t polish the expression of our private feelings and sorrows into a form that’s relevant and useful, even to strangers and fellow citizens in the commonweal. We can take for granted that our treacle or our anger speaks for itself and presume the relevance of private feelings to public discourse. If, in fact, we’re drowning in a public culture of meanness, it is one that the public culture of cloying sweetness unwittingly helped create.

It’s also likely that our exposure to public displays of sentiment inoculates us just a bit and leaves us requiring ever more dramatic displays of real, raw feeling. As with any other discourse, we’ve learned to decode the genre: having watched a stranger grieve and suffer or having been a stranger who grieves and suffers in public, we know what to expect. This pushes us to find really and truly extreme anger, or really and truly blameless victims who can stir an unmodified empathy in our stonier hearts or sharpen our blunted sensibilities. For social conservatives, the most blameless and absolutely inculpable victim today might well be the unborn fetus. For liberals, the most unimpeachably blameless creature on the margins might be the suffering lab animal or the endangered whale. As for sentient humans, who most often suffer under a complex amalgam of social circumstance, inequality, character, injustice, and bad luck, the narrative standards of pure victimhood are higher, the skepticism sharper, and sympathy now harder, not easier, to come by.

Public displays of sentiment compete against critical acuity and skepticism bred of familiarity. David Shields, in his 2010 book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, posits that our age is defined by an insatiable desire to get real and find more real and emotionally true things. It’s a paradox of the tell-all age: how can it be true that we have no fig leaf of private life remaining but we hunger for yet more reality? Still, it makes quirky sense. In conditions of sentimental overkill we restlessly sense, or hope, that somewhere else there is a more real thing, a deeper intimacy to see vicariously, an even more raw, unmediated feeling—and we want to find it. “Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable,” H. L. Mencken wrote. “But there it sits, nevertheless … ” Real feeling and real emotion, like coolness, have a way of staying one step ahead of us.

Social media and reality tv shows increase the opportunities for the casual sharing in public of feelings and secrets. But strictly speaking, they aren’t the culprits. The online social media function as a superhighway for the perfusion of sentiment into public life. The firewall around a private life of intimacy and emotions is now membranous at best. We let it all hang out. Participants on reality TV shows profess their love for each other after one episode.

I scan the friends in my Facebook account. Many are acquaintances from earlier lives to whom I’ve maintained an abstract loyalty and affection but no actual contact. Some are friends-in-law that Facebook thought I should meet; I dutifully obliged, but I’ve never met them. And yet I know minutiae of their daily domestic life. I once friended a man by accident because he shared a name with a true friend of mine. He accepted my misled offer, and now I read updates on his ups and downs as a single dad.

Facebook has created presumptive, default closeness among casual acquaintances where we once had presumptive, default formality, and I don’t know that it’s such a bad thing. I’m a social media agnostic. I’m also wary of sounding like, say, a middle-aged crank, nostalgic for a prelapsarian face-to-face social life that she most likely found strange when she was actually living through it as a young person. New forms of connection get invented, and an Elegy for the Private Man in the Privacy-Loathing Age told in dismayed rumblings doesn’t preoccupy me.

But what do we call this chimera of being closer—in each other’s business—yet not at all intimate? On Facebook we call it being friends. It’s harmless enough. We all know that there are gradations of intimacy and that there is a friendship deeper than a Facebook friend. The lucky ones among us have people with whom we are genuinely close: those who will help us in an emergency, whom we could call at midnight with a problem, with whom we feel mutual obligations, who provide us with social identity and place, and without whom our lives would be tangibly compromised. Facebook and the like promote intimacy lite.

Lite intimacies in social media create a background din of disclosure, confession, closeness, and familiarity. It isn’t inherently fake or objectionable, and if it were only a semantic problem, I wouldn’t be concerned. But there is danger, it seems to me, of losing our coordinates. There’s a danger that the lite intimacies of the sentimental culture might deplete the resources of our true intimacies. If the intimate building blocks that once belonged mostly to a domestic partner or family—the sharing of a million little details about our moods, and what we ate for breakfast, and our daily rituals and secret gripes—now belong to everyone on Facebook in the world of lite intimacy, then how much deeper do we need to go to find the everyday material out of which to recognize, solidify, and build that deeper intimacy? Do we have to scream emotions louder to be heard over the cacophony of the lite intimacy? A mild hypothesis for the new social life of our age: the easier it is to be close but not intimate in public, the easier it is to be close but not intimate in private.

Psychologists and researchers have noticed this intimacy confusion even in the closest of relationships, finding that a predilection for virtual sex and online pornography deters real sexual contact. Dagmar Herzog, a historian of sexuality, writes that young men must be reminded to touch their actual girlfriends’ breasts once in a while. This reminds me of birds who are disoriented at night in their instinctive, migratory paths by the dazzle of millions of artificial urban lights.

It’s hard to imagine human sexual instinct undone or perturbed by the virtual—some would say pretend—intimacies of social media, but sex researchers worry that it’s so. Maybe the amplification of sentiment in public life is like an addiction to high-fructose corn syrup sodas. Drink too many—consume too much fast food of sentiment—and eventually you get diabetes of the soul. It’s harder for the soul to process and use sentiment, even the healthy stuff, and it works sluggishly and inefficiently. None of this happens suddenly; it occurs bit by bit but momentously over the years.

Even if the culture of treacle does no damage to our civil society or our “real” intimacies—even if it is a benign or socially neutral phenomenon—at the very least our notion of self is changing apace with social media and the sentimental public life that social media have accelerated. And the changes have come in ways that we’ve yet to recognize or fully appreciate.

Cultural historian Warren Susman charted the shift from an American culture of character in the 19th century to a culture of personality in the 20th century. The culture of character valued personal virtues like hard work, achievement, and duty; the culture of personality revered those who were fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, and forceful. Charm was its currency. This character type solved the social quandary of the new mass society because personality proposed the means by which to emerge as “a somebody” amid the anonymous masses. Susman theorized more broadly that changes in culture tend to change our “modal type” of character like this. In other words, a culture finds (in fact creates) its ideal person.

What, then, is ours going to be? What modal type matches our culture as it has shifted in the early years of this century? It doesn’t seem to resemble a culture of either character or personality. It’s not accurately driven by a goal of dominating by means of achievement or larger-than-life magnetism. Its dream may still be to command attention, to emerge as a somebody from the primordial ooze of the social media world but not through the projection of a monumental star celebrity, as was the case in the 20th century’s culture of personality. Influence and charm in social media travel through much smaller capillaries than that. “You must Twitter,” it is often said. The amassing of influence happens through intimate whispers to 20,000 followers en masse, but it feels personal.

It’s a microbroadcasting of personality and personal emotions. Time magazine’s 2010 person of the year, Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, aspires to connect every person on Earth—not as subjects or fans, but as “friends.” Maybe this century’s culture is a culture of feeling in which the ideal citizen-feeler has the qualities of soulful transparency, audacious disclosure, and candor, who knows the skills of whispered confession, intimate revelation, and the trade in secrets to make you think that you and you alone are hearing something new and experiencing a new feeling; who emerges as somebody not through the achievements of character or the mesmeric charm of personality but by the emotional spontaneity of personal impressions and stances. From these, the citizen-feeler will build an empire on the ephemera of thousands of confessions, posts, and tweets.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Pamela Haag is the author of Marriage Confidential (2011). She writes a twice-weekly column at the Big Think online magazine and blogs at Huffington Post.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up