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Monday, January 9, 2012

36 Views of North Korean Grieving

AP photo from The Wall Street Journal

Two weeks ago, while gazing at photos of North Koreans in mourning--including grown men chewing the scenery--I recalled head shots depicting emotional states in the books and training materials of Paul Ekman. What, I wondered, would Professor Ekman, our leading authority on "reading" emotions from facial expressions, make of that frenzy of facial contortions from the Hermit Kingdom? In its obit of Kim Jong Il, a.k.a. The Guiding Star of the 21st Century and 200 other nifty appellations, The Economist speculated:
Mr. Kim knew exactly how the [his] population lined up: loyal core, 5-25%; wavering, 50-75%; hostile, 8-27%. But those who dissented--even in a whisper, even by hanging his portrait askew--ended in prison camps, subjected to forced labor and starvation.

How might Dr. Ekman audit the “grief cred” of our North Korean subjects? He’d certainly have us look for any upward angling of the eyebrows’ inner corners. It’s a high-probability marker of grief, he writes, that few can turn on voluntarily. He might also recommend that we look for slight or partial expressions; they might reveal other emotions—especially, in this case, fear. (Tensed lower and raised upper eyelids together are a high-percentage signal of fear--whether it stems from totalitarian disapproval or leering clowns.)  And he might have us sleuth out micro expressions (1/5 a second or less in duration), which can reveal fleeting emotional “tells.”

But buyer beware--trained actors and some sociopaths can beat the system. And there’s also temporary emotional contagion in numbers. Whatever the underlying mechanism of collective mimicry—mirror neurons, an intensified, rhythmically repetitive activity level—the herd makes it easier to feel the love, feel the grief. Professional mourners, you should note, typically gig as an ensemble. Check out these Rajasthani pros below who have traveled south to Bangalore to collectively wail not for mahatmas lost but for the callous termination of trees.

Professional mourners from Rajasthan

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1 comment:

JD said...

With regards to this subject, I would certainly recommend the book "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." Gorgeous narrative journalism, not too long, and intimately covers the subject of crowd-enforced grief from the perspective of its interviewees. The book covers the passing of Kim Il-Sung and the collective mourning, and seeing as he was more "revered" than Kim Jong-Il, it is easy to extrapolate the truth behind the faces here.