What Makes It A Tragedy?

News came out today that Cory Monteith, one of the stars of the wildly popular Glee, passed away in his hotel room. Rumours say that it was a drug overdose. Social media is exploding with people commenting on what a tragedy it is.

But what makes it a tragedy? And what would be the reaction if it was not a star, but the guy next door?

It’s a tragedy because he’s young, because he’s talented (I guess, I’ve never seen the show), because it’s unexpected, because he’ll never live up to his full potential. All of these things are true, and tragic, and deserve reflecting upon, and possibly even sorrow. It’s a life cut short, and that brings out powerful emotions in people.

What if it was Johnny from high school though? Would it get the same reaction? I would posit that it may well not.

Johnny isn’t anyone ‘special’. We often don’t assign most of the people we know with any particular value unless they’re close to ourselves, or some kind of inspirational success story. In general though, Johnny wasn’t anything special, and so his passing doesn’t really affect many people much. A star’s death, on the other hand, is big because they were special – an actor, a sports star, etc.

If the death was an accidental overdose, there’s sadness. As I saw it put, ‘pretty sad how bad stars are affected by drugs’. But when it’s Johnny, the drug addiction isn’t given that same kind of pass. He’s stupid for getting into drugs, he’s an idiot for not kicking his addiction. For Johnny, it’s not a tragedy, it’s a character failing.

If the death is a deliberate overdose, we bewail the pressure that stars are under, and how badly it affects them. But Johnny’s suicide is not talked about, or when it is, it’s with venom. Johnny is selfish, he’s an idiot, he just gave up. The star’s death is a terrible result of difficult circumstances, but Johnny’s is another character failure.

We need to think about how differently we treat Johnny, and why. Because Cory Monteith’s death and Johnny’s (hypothetical) death are the same. They’re a product of similar forces. Cory’s death is tragic, but we treat Johnny’s as shameful. That needs to change.

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