Simulating is not pretending: Observations on Mairead and Mick Philpott

A look askance

I want to comment on the case of Mairead and Mick Philpott of Derby, England. To recap: following their arrest and questioning by police, yesterday they were charged with the murder of six of their own children by setting alight to their home.

The tragedy it is interesting because the prospect of their guilt contrasts so starkly with the display of their grief at a news conference on May 16.

They would not have been arrested and questioned, let alone charged, unless the police had reasonable grounds for believing them guilty. This guilt, of course, still has to be proven. If they are guilty they must have been lying during their press conference. Or so the speculation goes.

The question asked of us ‘experts’ then becomes: Can we tell, by analyzing their facial expressions, body language and voice if they were lying? It’s an understandable question, but is it the right one?

I ask this because I’m reminded of something Baudrillard says:

To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that because simulating is not pretending: “Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Littré). Therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the “true” and the “false,” the “real” and the “imaginary.” (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation; my emphasis)

Now Baudrillard is often dismissed as an unintelligible French social theorist, but he’s on to something here.

We might ask: were the Philpott’s simulating grief during their news conference? Simulating, for Baudrillard, is not pretending. Whoever simulates an emotion produces in himself/herself some of the symptoms. We know, for example, that simulating an emotion by making the appropriate facial expression, can stir that emotion inside you.

Simulating, then, isn’t lying. It blurs the distinction between what is true and what is false. Simulating is deceiving.

We simulate to deceive. Many animals do it. I once knew a blue jay that simulated the call of a local hawk as it swooped down to the bird table. Other birds scattered and it was free to feed at leisure. The jay knew exactly what is was doing.

Individual humans do it as they negotiate their daily lives. If we all revealed what we really felt inside human societies would disintegrate.

Nation states do it in the form of military deception. They make the enemy believe one thing about their intentions and do another.

I suspect that humans ability to detect deception is deteriorating. When everything is simulated, even emotions, the search for authenticity leads to nostalgia, to a time and place when things were real.

Other, wilder, animals, however, are a different matter. Gazelles know when a lion is in hunting mode just be looking at it. A dog or a horse can weigh you up in an instant. Those whose survival depends on being able to judge a human’s intentions have a vested interest in being very good at it. These are the captive. It has been said that women became recognized as emotionally skilled because when they were economically subordinated to men they had to be. These are the famous ‘feminine wiles’.

The Philpotts may or may not have lied during their questioning by police. But were they simulating grief during their press conference on May 16, 2012?

Knowing they have been charged with murder is bound to influence our retrospective reading of it, but their behaviour does seem odd. No actual tears, but plenty of hanky. The tears which we are asked to believe were coming out of their eyes had the effect of preventing us looking into them. They say that losing even one child is enough to make you want to hand back your ticket to the universe. I have seen such people and they look stunned, shocked, ghost-like, unable to comprehend what has happened to them. To lose six takes you into a realm without words: just silent immeasurable pain.

The Philpott’s behaviour at that news conference looked to me like a performance.

If so, why would they think it necessary? After all, having lost six of your children a press conference to ‘thank’ everyone for their ‘support’ is hardly expected. And the people Mick Philpott thanked (which included his three eldest remaining children) could have been thanked personally rather than through the media.

Perhaps the Philpotts felt the finger of suspicion pointing at them and wanted to deflect it away by winning the backing of public opinion and using it as a shield against the police. That would be my guess. If so, they were gambling on no one believing that any one—least of all parents—could be capable of such a bare-faced and despicable deception. They appear to have lost this bet.

But emotional authenticity is something to be sensed through all of the body, not just the brain. It’s settled by feeling, not argument. This is why all of the above is but nothing compared to the testimony of the look on the face of the police officer in the above photograph as he takes in Mairead and Mick Philpott’s display on May 16.

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