The wretched imbalance of popular interest

Abstract: The tragic tale of two tweeters exposes the imbalance of popular interest…

For those interested in following someone else’s thoughts, there is little to beat Twitter. Unfortunately it’s dominated by the followers of so-called reality; when in fact the true stories are found in real life.

I am willing to bet all the money I have that the typical fan of Kim Kardashian has never heard of Tony Nicklinson. For those clever enough to shun reality TV, Kim Kardashian is the undisputed queen of this turgid genre of entertainment. She is a celebrity because she is on TV and she is on TV because she is a celebrity. She busies herself shopping, having her nails and hair done, and enduring the ‘OMG’ rigours of a celebrity lifestyle.

The good news is that evolution will eventually trim the human species of her ilk; the bad news is that it will take a while. This is because, for reasons best left out of this column, said species are inextricably drawn to her behaviour. She has over 16 million followers on Twitter – people who hang on her every utterance, which includes such literary insights as “Nothing like shopping in NYC” and “BF time!”

I will explain who Tony Nicklinson is shortly.

Back to our vapid celebrity. The secret to why Kim Kardashian is a star – for no other apparent reason than her shallow life has been catalogued by a TV crew – is locked away inside your head. It’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’, and it’s the term used by psychologists to refer to that feeling of discomfort when faced with conflicting ideas or beliefs, otherwise known as cognitions.

An example would be the anxiety at having to put down a beloved, but very sick, pet. One part of you wants your pet to live, but the other knows that they are suffering. The result: cognitive dissonance.

The makers of so-called reality TV series such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians understand cognitive dissonance, which is why every episode refers to supposedly conflicting moral dilemmas designed to engender a certain degree of discomfort within the viewer. However – and here’s the part best left to a later article – the ‘dilemmas’ are utterly inane, and invariably hover around relationships and choices of nail polish.

Whatever they are, they pale into insignificance compared to the true reality of the life of Tony Nicklinson.

Tony made the headlines a few months ago when he applied for the right to die. A husband and father of two young adult daughters, his life took a horrific turn when he suffered a stroke in 2005 and was left alive but unable to move, a term called ‘locked-in syndrome’.

Before his stroke he was an avid sportsman and led an active social life; after the stroke, his mind remained acutely active, but he literally couldn’t lift a finger, neither could he talk. Every day, instead of being able to caress his wife, he had to endure the indignation of her cradling and washing him. He couldn’t hug his daughters or talk and laugh with them. In his own words, his life became a ‘living nightmare’.

Now you may ask how could he communicate if he couldn’t talk. The answer: a special computer positioned in front of him traced his eye movements as they searched for letters and keystrokes on an on-screen keyboard, thereby allowing him to construct words and sentences. As a communication tool it proved both liberating and exhausting.

Using this computer, Tony communicated with the world through a Twitter account as he sought support for his right to die. It was a cause his wife and two daughters – knowing Tony better than anyone else – supported through numerous interviews with the mainstream media.

There was, however, a catch: because he was physically incapable of ending his life, he needed the help of those he loved to help him die. According to British law, such physically assisted suicide was classified as murder.

His challenge presented a nation with a classic case of cognitive dissonance: a man, robbed of his life, wanted to be allowed to die at the hands of those who loved him. His case before the High Court was followed by the British media, and his thoughts, fears and love for his family were shared with just over 56 000 followers on Twitter, myself being one of them.

On 17th August he tweeted: “Sorry, thought could spend all day online but wasn’t to be. Media all day yesterday. Jane & Girls fantastic. Still down after result. #tony” The ‘result’ he was referring to was the High Court judgment against him. Heartbroken, he withdrew from Twitter, refused food, and his health deteriorated.

On 22nd August, his daughter Lauren tweeted: “You may already know, my Dad died peacefully this morning of natural causes. He was 58.”

Tony Nicklinson opened up his life and his thoughts on Twitter – every single letter laboriously selected, one at a time, on an on-screen keyboard using only his eyes – for a greater good: to raise awareness of a person’s right to die with dignity.

His death should therefore not be in vain. His braveness should be rewarded with more support on Twitter. His wife and daughters are continuing his fight, and you can be part of it on @TonyNicklinson.

Unless of course, you’re one of the 16 million struggling with the dilemma of what colour nail polish Kim Kardashian should choose on her next shopping trip to New York.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 9th September 2012