I don’t think it’s necessary for me to relate the tragedies of the past 24 hours in this post. Most people will know what has happened in Paris, and if they don’t then this post is not written to address them.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep because of the grief I had for those killed. For their families, for their futures, but mainly for the circumstances of their deaths. The fact that these individuals stepped out of their homes into a space where they felt secure, at the beginning of their weekends, only to be met with panic and violence. The thoughts deeply affected me. And so did the responses.
After any tragedy, social media flares up on every level imaginable. My twitter feed was a frenzy of news reports, comments on the current socio-political climate, various accounts of what was happening not just in France, but worldwide. And then, of course, began the instinctual response of social media; the expression of sympathy.
However, along with all of the messages of solidarity, love and prayers, came a flurry of posts that sought to gain the most social support – people creating various graphics to post on their Instagram, faux-inspiring quotes that cannot even begin to describe the horror of these events. I even saw some people digging out their old holiday snaps of the Eiffel Tower tagging their friends like ‘remember this fun holiday we had’ as though that’s an even slightly appropriate connection to make.
Don’t get me wrong, I think social media can be used as one of the most effective tools in a crisis for spreading messages of love and information. It allows a platform that journalists can’t always reach by giving the perspective of the people rather than the bias of the news outlets. However, the way it is always used to perpetuate these attention-seeking posts is deeply exploitative and self-congratulatory.
But I have also realised that amongst my personal grief and anger, I feel a huge sense of guilt for the way I’m acknowledging this as such an affecting tragedy, when every day thousands of news stories of incidents akin to this one slip through my fingers. When the crowds were crushed to death on Eid in Mecca two months ago, my heart hurt for those people, but I didn’t mention it to anyone other than in a passing way. The loss of life was just as tragic, as every single death is, and was more vast in number, but the grief passed swiftly, and to tell you the truth, I’d forgotten about it.
When I pointed this out on Twitter earlier, a dear friend of mine made the point that the reason we are so invested in this tragedy is because of its proximity to home. And this is true, to a huge extent. Two Novembers ago, I flew the short 40 minute flight from Southampton to Paris to go to a concert of one of my favourite bands in a Parisian theatre just a ten minute drive away from where some of the attacks happened. I cannot even begin to imagine the absolute horror that those involved must have faced.
But while it is true that this has happened effectively on our doorstep, it’s not just England who are reaching out in the deepest sympathies. Worldwide, images of the French flag have been displayed as a symbol of unity and respect for the French people. Besides, if we’re talking about literal distance then a huge amount of the places that have had an extreme loss of life over the course of recent history are closer in distance than, say, NYC, yet when the twin towers collapsed, the entirety of the western world, including the UK, halted everything to report it and pay their respects.
So then, it seems, the tragedy is emphasised by the news outlets, social media hubs, etc. because of our closeness in culture, rather than literal distance.
This bothers me. It creates an idea of a divide between the (predominantly wealthy white male) west, and the rest of the world in more than just cultural ideologies, differences in physical appearance, various attitudes to social history, etc. By brushing off the huge number of incidents that happen in non-western environments, the media is effectively reinforcing the idea that only western loss of life is worth creating a hashtag about, perpetuating through all social media and news outlets, and feeling sadness about. The divide between cultures becomes more than an acknowledgement of differences, but a creation of an ‘us and them’ narrative, which is a dangerous route for our perceptions to go down, as the assumption becomes one of a higher and lesser worth of human life based on place of origin.
And what does this mean for our future?
We all know what happens when you fight terror with violence, what kind of subcultures and sects it creates. We know that anyone even vaguely Muslim is going to have a dozen more obstacles to overcome as a result of public perception and the need for a scapegoat. The attachment of the word ‘Islam’ to any act of violence is a guarantee of growing animosity towards an already persecuted group in society. So many of my family and friends are Muslim and it breaks my heart some of the things they have to face that are so subtly integrated into the functioning of society that they can’t even be recognised as things anymore.
Nothing can take away from the pain and mourning that the world is feeling for France right now. But we must also examine why we care so much about some and so little about others.