The Sun is known for many things, but one of its now regular features which escapes immediate notice – understandable, really, behind the barrage of tits – is its use of the word ‘tragic’. Tragic is a word with a venerable tradition and a nigh-on infinite array of meanings. It spans the ancient days of sacrificial slaughter (‘tragos’ means ‘goat’ in Greek, and ‘aoidia’ means ‘song’ – hence a song sung whilst the animal was sacrificed) and the art-form that arose out of that ritual, giving us the likes of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, through its next high-point with Shakespeare all the way to the latest most rigorous attempt to get to grips with it as a concept: Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence. Along the way, ‘tragic’ can mean anything from ‘very sad’ to ‘the downfall of a great man thanks to an inherent fatal flaw’. It is a veritable cocktail of destiny, free will, suffering and obscure glory. It can also be a fairly humdrum affair: Hamlet was a prince, but the young working-class mother who dies prematurely of meningitis is no less deserving of the ‘accolade’, if one can be so perverse as to call it that.
What is novel about The Sun’s use of the word is that it becomes a personal attribute; ‘tragic’ is no longer an adjective ascribed to a certain situation, but something a person seems to be: ‘tragic Stephen Gately’, ‘tragic mum is knifed’, ‘eight tragic soldiers killed’, and so on. Now, what I certainly don’t want to suggest is that these people are not important enough to be associated with the high gravitas of tragedy. My problem with The Sun’s usage is that it is deeply ideological. By ascribing ‘tragic’ to an individual person rather than to the network of relations in which they are ensnared (causal, social, economic, political, familial, miltarial) it suggests that what happened was somehow destined and inevitable, it was ‘in their nature’. Whereas what is really tragic about many of these stories is that the people who suffer and die in them do so as a result of potentially avoidable systemic violence of which they are the victim. What is tragic about a British soldier being killed in Afghanistan is not something inherent in the soldier himself, but rather in the world economic and political system which has landed him there as an illegal occupier, paid him a shitty wage to be there, encouraged him that it is in his and our immediate interests to murder supposedly ‘evil’ enemies, and then – to top it all off – has got him massacred in the process. By attributing the tragic to the soldier himself, this larger narrative is kept nicely out of view.
The Sun is a wonderfully inventive and funny newspaper. If it wasn’t the ideological handmaid of murder, hatred and mass exploitation, I’d be able to laugh at its jokes that little bit more easily.