Politicizing Grief: Manipulation When We're Most Vulnerable

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vigil rabin square
Most of our leaders are men, who decide when we next wage war, but we women pay the price. Vigil held at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square after the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens were found. June 2014Credit: David Bachar

Less than an hour after the news broke that the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers were found in a field outside Hebron, the real battle for the hearts and minds of Israeli society began. It was - and still is -  being fought on TV talk shows and the social media, pitting right against left, hardline security advocates against peace activists, each side hoping that the public's genuine and heartfelt grief would work on their behalf. 

Focusing anger and grief has always proven to be an effective way to motivate political action. In a paper published this week in the Review of General Psychology journal, I argue that grief, the painful emotion that results when someone we love dies, is actively used and manipulated by governments and political advocacy groups to further national military and economic agendas. Grief can also be used to further solidarity: for social justice and to bring people together.

Psychologists, including myself, often focus on grief as a private emotion, but in fact, it is a deeply political one. The maxim not to make any rash decisions while you are mourning is not just a saying. Historically, decisions made when nations are in turmoil turn out to be problematic. Mental health professionals - and in situations like the one Israel has just experienced, the public - need to pay closer attention to how our grief is being used to achieve political goals that we may not agree with.

The nationalization of grief for political purposes runs rampant in Israeli and American societies. Israeli Memorial Day is a national day of intense collective grief. This day is truly impressive in its ability to bring together a deeply divided nation in twenty-four hours of collective mourning and community support.

It is also a day that is deeply politicized and is always linked to what Israelis call “the situation,” or the state of the conflict with the Palestinians.  Every politician who speaks, and there are many who participate in televised ceremonies, link together grief and war, grief and national security, and grief with patriotism. There is a need to show that these soldiers did not die in vain – that one’s individual grief is offset by the greater good.

In the United States, the link between grief and war has been as explicit as in Israel.  Memorial Days in the US are rife with the political manipulation of public grief for the purposes of justifying military action. In an analysis looking at 27 presidential speeches on Memorial Day given at Arlington National Cemetery, the anthropologist Slavickova found that legitimization of past, present and future military action and an emphasis on nationalism in direct relationship to the soldiers who died in war was a constant theme in every speech. The sub-text given to the public is that they should grieve their losses, but any critique, regret, or remorse over the loss of lives in the military context is unpatriotic and disrespectful to the dead. 

The rousing of grief in the service of nationalism has two political goals. The first is to give meaning to the bereaved families’ losses and situate the death in the context of nation-building. The fallen soldiers are considered heroes who bravely defended their nation. Framing the deaths in this context makes protest against the government’s action nearly impossible for the bereaved, since rejecting this narrative would mean that the deaths of their loved ones were meaningless and in vain.              

In the second instance, grief is used as a justification for the current conflict and sets the stage for future military action. The conjuring up of loss in the same breath as the reminder to the nation that they need to be strong and defend their borders is a binding together of grief with political action that justifies continued warfare.  

It is noteworthy that the families of the kidnapped sons chose to break out of this mold, calling for collective prayer and unity rather than expressing anger and hatred. This from parents who had been briefed by the security forces and had every reason to assume their sons were already dead. In every speech and public appearance they made during the 18 days of uncertainty, they avoided making any direct political statements.

Now after the announcement of these tragic losses, their children’s deaths have already become politicized - seemingly against the families’ wishes - in the eulogies, in the calls for ‘revenge,’ and in the debates about how to make Hamas ‘pay’ for these deaths.

Grief is one of the most powerful emotions we will experience in our lives. In some instances, it is more powerful than love, anger, and desire. Because of the passion it can arouse, and because it is an emotion that can leave us open and vulnerable, it is an especially effective experience to manipulate for political ends. In recent years there has been an enormous amount of professional and public debate about whether grief is a disease or not.  It’s time to widen our lens on this emotion and look more closely at the ways in which our grief is being used to further political goals with whom we may well not agree. 

Dr. Leeat Granek is a critical health psychologist and researcher in the Department of Public Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel. Her research expertise is in grief and loss, psycho-oncology, and women's health. 

For her research work, click here.

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