When an outpouring of social-media support for the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks gives way to grief-shaming, are we losing sight of our humanity?
Late last Friday afternoon, as I sat in the office where I occasionally freelance, a wash of gasps flooded through the room full of cubicles. I glanced at my iPhone and quickly understood why: We’d all simultaneously received a news alert about what we now know was a three-team coordinated terrorist attack on Paris by Daesh that killed 129 people, and injured 352 others (99 of them critically)—the second deadliest attack on a Western city since 9/11.
I watched as my Facebook feed quickly filled with messages of love to friends and family across the ocean, expressions of solidarity with those shocked and bereft, appeals to post notes that they’re safe. Then came memories and photos of treasured visits to the city of light, followed by profile photos filtered in the colors of the French flag, avatars of the Eiffel Tower formed like a peace sign, literary and philosophical memes calling for peace. Admittedly I am something of a Facebook addict, but I was genuinely moved by the way my friends were sharing news, processing the horror together, trying to make sense of the unspeakable chaos and violence as it was unfolding, wanting immediately to connect with one another and mourn together. Some of us used it as an electronic bulletin to allow others to know we’re thinking about them, looking for them. (And, in fact, the Zucks enabled a safety-check function to let those in Paris alert everyone that they were okay.)
So this is what 9/11 might have been like if we’d had social media—for better, and for worse. I say for worse because I had to sign off for the night, and by the time I’d awakened the next morning, my feed was flooded with more devastating news: Beirut had suffered a double-suicide attack, which killed 44 people. “Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East,” explained more than a few people, to get others to appreciate the tragedy in Western terms (not that it needed to be explained). Because it wasn’t new-news. It had happened on Thursday. But because it wasn’t splashed across the cover of the New York Times, or flashing on our smartphones, seeing a post on a social-media feed a day, even two days later, was how many of us first learned of it. Admittedly, after a week of frantic deadlines and long work hours, I didn’t know about it until a good friend posted a story about it from Yahoo! news. So I thanked him and reposted, without judgment. Other friends did the same.
What soon followed were chastening posts about people caring only about Paris but not about the victims in Beirut. What about them? What about ISIS’s other recent targets, in Baghdad, in August? In Kenya, in April? Facebook got ugly, fast. And with it came the flurry of think pieces analyzing the way we grieve on social media and for whom—why we embrace some and not others, and how we do it wrong. About how even Facebook only tended to Paris, and ignored Beirut, with its flag filter and safety-check function (those pieces weren’t wrong, Facebook did ignore them, initially). These pieces were written in real time, while people were still learning news and more news still, still trying to wrap their minds around the enormity of the tragedy. Their fear that this may be the beginning of something else, something bigger.
It’s hard to blame people for not caring about news they didn’t have access to—for this, we can only blame the media. Many of us go directly to news sources, and supplement it with our newsfeeds on social media—more and more news organizations count on the fact that we get our information from Facebook and Twitter, and directly post there. I’m grateful for my Facebook feed, and in particular, my smart and wide network of friends, who are among those who help these stories gain steam.
But unfortunately, the not knowing was paired with what can only be called grief-shaming for some of us. I wasn’t seeing people calling each other out for saying xenophobic or racist or Islamophobic things. The finger-wagging was directed at people for having too limited a scope in the caring department—for being too Paris-focused. (But, where were those posts about Beirut on Thursday and early Friday?)
If you’re someone who reads the news, or reads the flurry of essays trying to parse our feelings about these tragedies, well, good news: You do care. Unfortunately, we live in a world where every day, often many times a day, we read countless news stories and posts about too many tragedies to count, and our minds and hearts can only take in so much. Right here, on American soil, we have witnessed senseless murders of unarmed citizens by cops. Of children and teachers in school shootings. Of people killed in movie theaters and malls, of families obliterated by an enraged family in multiple-murder-suicides. And those are just the reported cases of gun deaths. Even still, we can’t remember all the names, all the towns.
Widen the lens, and we have international terrorism. In Kenya, in Iraq, in Iran, in Nigeria, in Syria. In Egypt. And now in Paris. And so just as we curate our newsfeeds based on our interests in that particular moment, our minds curate too what we can sympathize and empathize with based on what we can take in, and do so at our own pace, so that we can function.
And so between the fact that the news directed us to the city of light first, followed by the reality that more Americans are better acquainted with Paris than Beirut, perhaps this explains our tendency to direct our sympathy there, because the more familiar backdrop enables many of us to better imagine the horror. Does it mean we don’t care about the people of Beirut? I can’t speak for others, only myself. I’d like to think that I care about everyone who’s literally been terrorized. I hope so. But as a longtime New Yorker, who has been to Paris more than a few times, it was very easy for me to grasp because I had walked those exact streets, and could envision too easily what it would have been like to see a city unused to such acts of terror brought to its knees.
I also recognize that we’re all feeling vulnerable and terrified, no matter what side of these grueling, righteous Facebook throwdowns we’ve been on, whether we’ve been chastened or done the chastening. If we’re engaged in these (occasionally combative) dialogues at all, I think it’s safe to say, we are engaged, period. We are terrified. We want our friends to see the whole picture and be in the conversation and talk about it and make sense of the chaos. Maybe I’m lucky but from where I sit, I think it comes from a good place. At the end of the day, we come to social media to check in and say hi and have a laugh and support each other on the best and worst days, to keep each other informed, share ideas, and make sure we’re all still out there.
It’s when we become inured to the stories, and the people in them, that we should worry. When some of us start using these stories as an excuse to espouse Islamophobic, racist, xenophobic ideologies, well, do I need to finish this sentence?
Speaking of which, if any of us have any doubts about which side our friends fall on, wait till next week, when some of us get stuck sitting next to that Fox and Friends–watching, Marco Rubio–loving (or worse) relative at Thanksgiving, who thinks bombing the shit out of Syria is the only solution, who will explain why this is further proof that we need to seal the borders. Nothing brings friends closer than a common enemy—at the end of the day, after all the Facebook fights, we love the shit out of each other. But while tragedies can bring out the best in us, they can also make us lose sight of ourselves and bring out the worst—some of us need to remember patience for those who are trying to grapple with loss. There is no right way to grieve, except to give one another space, to respect it, to allow people their feelings.
Besides, we’re going to need this patience, because I think we all sense something huge is about to burst, with France’s President François Holland announcing that “France is at war,” his promise to annihilate the Islamic State, combined with his immediate retaliation, joined by the efforts of the U.S., this all feels like we’re on the brink of World War Three. Is that what’s happening? I hope to god not, but no matter what it is, we’ll need each other now more than ever.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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