God knows everyone who offers opinion for a living should swear off opening debate with the “what has happened to our society when….” (shift-F3 on the keyboard) type of question. But what has happened to our society when someone can a) not only go on a television game show disguised as a reality show when her father is known to be dying, but b) make a pact with her family not to be informed of his death?

The show itself seems to have attracted the greatest opprobrium, but if they’re guilty of anything, it’s merely of complicity in something more morally confused than actually malign, which was the decision of Emma Cornell to go into the show knowing that her father might die while she was in there.

In a letter published on the Big Brother website, Emma’s brother defends her, and argues:

We reassured Emma that, in the event that this did happen, grieving our dad’s death when she was released from Big Brother would be no less meaningful or significant than when he actually passed away.

Sorry, but this is just wrong. Not primarily morally – though it is – but wrong in the ‘2+2=5’ sense of wrong. If ‘grieving’ and ‘mourning’ mean anything, they mean that dying and death interrupt your life, disrupt it utterly. Even if the person dying says “no you go off on holiday/Big Brother/Deal or No Deal”, you don’t bloody go. What you owe to them is categorical, and you only live up to that obligation by being there, fully present, when and where it happens. Yes, it’s not always possible. But it was in Emma’s case. Instead of being there for her father’s last breath, she chose to go on a show and dress up as a chicken (or whatever) and be toss-fodder for 13 year-old-boys when she showers.

Yes, it’s one person choosing this, and most wouldn’t. But the fact that it’s even a possible choice – that it doesn’t strike everyone involved as abhorrent and unthinkable – is an indication of the fundamental modern error which says that you can have love, or connection, or obligation without it stopping you doing whatever you want – that these things are static and given quantities that aren’t created by the commitments we make, or undermined by the ones we don’t.

Indeed even the criticism of the show and the family has been couched in these terms, with grief counsellors talking about how it will have negative impacts on Emma later, etc etc, psychological health yadada. Well it may, it may not, but that’s not the point. The point is that some things are absolute obligations and if they’re not observed, then the meaning of everything else is undermined. If a parent’s death doesn’t have some sort of meaning that dictates foregoing certain individual desires, then what does? What other connection and obligation could possibly matter more? The answer of course is ‘nothing’ – and in that sense the act is profoundly nihilistic.

Catharine Lumby, the ‘orthodontist’s nurse’ of Australian academia (she’ll take a retainer from anyone) defended the show on the grounds that it allowed us to discuss ethical issues. Well, thanks. Before BB we were all in a quandary about whether you should be there, if you can, when your parents die.

And here’s the shift-F3 type of moment. It doesn’t surprise me that this has happened in Australia, and wouldn’t if it happened in the UK. But I couldn’t imagine it being handled this way in the US, say, or France. It is a symptom of a society whose ability to think morally has been worn away by a certain depthlessness, a forgetting of what matters, distracted by a pathological celebrity-culture and the idea that being filmed farting into a doona for 10 weeks counts as an achievement.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.