Don't be misled by our nation's pervasive disappointment


There used to be a near-fatal game called drink-along-a-Dallas, where you had to knock back a glass of something strong every time a character in the wonderfully lurid TV soap did the same. But there’s a variation guaranteed to induce cirrhosis even faster: drink-along-a-disappointing.

Whenever a controversy blows up, take a drink every time any participant or commentator declares their disappointment. You’ll be ossified in no time.

To take just one recent example, the scandal of horse meat in Irish burgers was the biggest let-down since Rapunzel. The Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney declared “I am disappointed with this development”. The chief executive of Bord Bia was “deeply disappointed”.

The chief executive of ABP Food Group, which produced the most chimerical burger, was “extremely disappointed”. The former chairman of the British Meat and Livestock Commission found the whole thing “very disappointing”. I would be disappointed if there were no further statements along the same lines.

Disappointment is now the default response to every failure or scandal, every nefarious act or culpable inaction – not just from governments and corporations but from pressure groups and campaigners as well. No one is angry or ashamed or disgusted. If you want to show very strong emotion, you don’t vary the expression, you just put a big adjective before it – very, extremely, deeply.

It covers all occasions. So far as I can see, the most disappointed man in Irish politics is Ruairí Quinn. In the recent past, he found the failure of his ill-conceived surveys of parental opinion of school ownership “disappointing”. He found the lack of progress in reducing the level of unemployment “disappointing”. He found the response from religious congregations to demands that they stump up more cash for the compensation of survivors of child abuse “disappointing”.

Dealing with the appalling failure of the Susi system for paying student grants, which he himself established, he said “I am disappointed that the system hasn’t worked as well as it was designed to work.” He must go around all day like a child who was expecting an Xbox from Santa Claus but got a box of crayons.

But it’s not just politicians who take refuge in this permanent state of sadly frustrated expectations. One of the reasons why disappointment is so universally popular is that it is a one-size-fits-all response to any kind of calamity, from missing a train to wrecking an economy.

The mining conglomerate Rio Tinto is “deeply disappointed” to have lost a breathtaking $14 billion on two bad deals. The Consumers’ Association of Ireland says HMV’s decision not to honour gift vouchers was “disappointing”. A reader writes to The Irish Times “to express disappointment in the service experienced on the Dart recently”.

One might think that these three events are on a diminishing scale of bad stuff. But disappointment reduces them all to the same vague feeling of disenchantment.

A term that has colonised public discourse so successfully must have some evolutionary advantages. At least four come to mind.

Firstly, disappointment minimises the scale of any screw-up: in 2008, the late Brian Lenihan announced his “disappointment at the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Mr Seán FitzPatrick as chairman” of Anglo Irish Bank.

Secondly, it absolves the speaker of any responsibility. Being disappointed suggests that something rotten has been done to you, not that you have caused or allowed something rotten to happen to other people. The chief executive of the horse burger company has suffered a terrible injustice. Ruairí Quinn is distanced from the Susi fiasco. I didn’t screw up – some unnamed person let me down. Would you hit me now with my lip quivering and my eyes misting over?

Thirdly, it shifts problems out of the political realm and makes them personal, even existential. Being disappointed is just part of the human condition – what else are we to expect in this vale of tears?

Lastly, and most importantly, disappointment is passive. You don’t have to do anything about it. Indeed you can’t actually do anything about it – it’s an emotion inflicted on you by the innate cruelty of the world. Your only fault is to have been a poor romantic fool who expected better.

Ironically, given that this language seems to have migrated from sport into public life, it was the Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney who put his finger on this recently. Hearing that Brian O’Driscoll was – what else? – “disappointed” at losing the Irish captaincy, Kidney pointed out that the word did not suggest that O’Driscoll would behave at all differently: “It’s a word that describes how you feel, it’s not a word that describes how you act.”

For all of these reasons disappointment has become the perfect public emotion for our times – it is narcissistic (this is all about me), childish, entirely vague and passive and above all it makes no demands for action. And it fills the space where other responses should be. Who needs shame, rage, contrition or resolve when a heartbroken sigh will suffice?

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