I heard about Whitney Houston’s death through Twitter. It's how I hear about most things these days, given that I mostly follow news outlets and friends who like making topical jokes.
One of the first lessons I learned about Twitter was to always ignore the trending topics. They are to Twitter what the comments section is to YouTube, what the Queen City Ex is to Regina – a depressing pool of riff-raff and shrieking 12-year-olds. Though I knew better, I broke that embargo this Saturday once news of Houston’s passing had started trending.
“RIP Whitney Houston” wasn’t too different from other “RIP” topics: mostly lowercase heartbreak, with some links to Houston’s music videos. But a number of tweets – not the majority, but about one per screenful, at times – seemed to say something worrying.
“R.I.P Whitney Houston […] It was because of takin drugs, her fault. Sorry but true.”
“Whitney Houston dead we get it she did drugs umm. That's the life she chose.”
“They make it seem like Whitney Houston was the best person ever … she was a druggy, no sympathy.”
Though most tweets like these were condemned by other users, it was a common sentiment that Houston’s death was deserved, or at least less sad, due to her struggles with drug addiction in the last few decades. Even a Guardian headline from the weekend laments the late singer’s “squandered talent,” as if describing a suicide.
If this feels vaguely familiar, it should. This scenario played out almost identically last summer when Amy Winehouse – another revered singer – was found dead of alcohol poisoning. Winehouse had been criticized throughout her career for the image her problems projected – Natalie Cole famously opposed her Grammy nod on the grounds that she “need[ed] to get herself together” first – and her death stirred similar controversy. It’s fair to say that most people were sympathetic to Winehouse on July 23, 2011. On the other hand, how many of your friends made “Rehab” jokes the second they heard the news?
No one’s barring anyone from thinking that these deaths were tragic, or even senseless. That’s exactly what they were. Moreover, nothing is stopping anyone from pointing out the grave threat that drug abuse poses. What’s upsetting is that many people still aren’t willing to recognize the nature of addiction, and instead paint “addict” as a deliberate lifestyle choice, like “snowboarder.”
I guess it’s assumed that drug addiction is sustained through conscious, daily effort, like starting a computer every morning, and would disappear if ignored or if the person “felt like getting help.” Hence, “She was a druggy, no sympathy.”
Before succumbing to drugs himself, comedian Mitch Hedberg pointed out that “alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having.” This is painfully true in situations like these. Whitney Houston’s drug troubles may not overshadow her music career, but they certainly sit next to it in headlines. They’re the object of actual anger, not just from fans but from news and entertainment outlets, seemingly incensed at her throwing her life away. It doesn’t help that so many people defend her with empty platitudes like “Focus on the good, not the bad; her life, not her death.”
Meanwhile, Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown managed to rebuild his career since being arrested for battery against her in 2003. He’s earned himself a reality show and earned his attacks the qualifier “alleged”. Incredibly, his reputation is less tarnished at this point. And since his public rehabilitation happened while Houston’s career fell apart due to her personal problems, it kind of suggests that assaulting a woman is more forgivable than having an addiction.
At the party she was planning to attend the evening of her death, singer Tony Bennett spoke warmly of Houston before his set and asked that “everyone in this room campaign to legalize drugs. Let’s legalize drugs like they did in Amsterdam. No one’s hiding or sneaking around corners to get it. They go to a doctor to get it.” And indeed, in Amsterdam, Portugal, and other places that put drugs in the government’s hands and treat addiction as a health concern, addiction rates have plummeted. Short of that, though, we as a society could do well to give everyone, even those fraught with disease, the same basic dignity in death.
And to stay away from the trending topics for our own health.