There are moments, when faced with something so severe, so frightening, that we forget the role we are playing.
We cease to be a father, mother, colleague or friend and transform into the vulnerable, emotionally naked creature that resides in us all. This creature has no job description to lean on or script to employ, they are pure emotion and react as such. It is rarely perfect, often it is bad, but it is always human and in that way, understandable.
The tragic cases of Charlie Gard and Grenfell have exposed this creature in many of our politicians and public servants and we have eviscerated them for it. The truth is the job we require them to do often demands they suppress their humanity and make it subservient to the will of the role they play. This is not in their interests but ours.
To question a person’s humanity for letting the mask we insist they wear slip, strikes me as deeply unfair. Yet we do and without irony. Our measure is almost always their ‘performance’ on camera. Do they look like they care? Even typing that question feels ridiculous. There are two competing demands on public figures at a time of crisis; competence and empathy. To fail either is a mortal sin. Yet, if I was a public servant and pushed to choose, which of the two is the one I must have? I plump for competence. Why? Because this is the means by which I am most able to provide material help to those in need.
I understand why modern politicians play the media game but it doesn’t mean I can’t point out the stupidity of judging someone’s character based on how well they play it. Theresa May doesn’t cry on command and is accused of lacking empathy. Or, because she decides to stick close to her security detail in the middle of an angry mob, she’s ‘scared to face the people’. We should judge politicians by a higher standard, but not an illogical one.
Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of both Grenfell and the case of Charlie Gard is the gutter opportunism of the groups willing to exploit a tragedy. I never cease to be amazed or appalled at the speed with which Socialist Worker Party placards appear at the scene of a disaster. Too often violence follows, disrespecting genuine victims and mutating what solidarity there might have been into something sinister. As Clive James once remarked, it only takes the person next to you to bend down and pick up a stone to know you’re in the wrong place.
More recently US anti-abortion activists hijacked the last sad days of poor Charlie Gard. Him having been born, one might assume the matter of abortion would be irrelevant, but again that’s just a bit too logical. From the Pope to President Trump, a host of non-medical experts decided to challenge the professional judgement of Great Ormond Street Hospital staff. As befits the civility of our times, doctors, nurses, parents and other child patients were subjected to abuse and intimidation by protesters for simply being associated with the hospital. Suffering really does make beasts of us all.
Perhaps most saddening, behind the abuse directed at politicians and public servants working with Grenfell and Charlie Gard, there is an honest fear: a knowing dread that accidents happen, mistakes are made and we are all at the cruel mercy of our gene pool or the faulty wiring of a household appliance. Aeschylus wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
That same knowledge is shared by our public servants and politicians. To expect more of them than we do ourselves in the midst of a tragedy is understandable, but it does not make it reasonable. That they willingly submit themselves to it, make their own humanity subservient to the role they play, is no minor act. We diminish ourselves by diminishing them for a weakness we all share: that creature in us all.
Did Theresa May, Nick Paget-Brown or Charlie Gard’s doctors make all the right decisions? That is not for me to say. As to their humanity, however, what could be more human than to stand in front of the awful grace of God, freeze, and hope that what comes next is wisdom?
Liam Booth-Smith, chief executive, Localis