Responding to Tragedy

WHENEVER A TERRORIST attack occurs, across social media I’ve largely only seen friends mourning the dead, or decrying the lack of media coverage; or even claiming that the absence of public mourning for some victims is somehow indicative of racism. In which case, such people have a lot of self-exculpation to do to prove their anti-racist credentials. Statista recorded that in 2014 there were 13,463 terrorist attacks worldwide, of which there will be more victims still. Have you mourned both publicly and representatively for all of them?

But even those simply mourning via social media should be looked at with scepticism. You should ask yourself; what is my mourning actually going to do for the victim’s country, the victims, and the victim’s families? It raises awareness of the event itself, and provides international solidarity. All well and good, but is that enough?

Call me a cynic, but I’ve been feeling increasingly uneasy about such outpourings of grief. I mean, don’t you think there is something suspect about people, who have the immediate reaction to take their (sometimes supposedly uncontrollable) grief to Facebook? Grief is becoming increasingly commodified, and measured up against the grief of others; as if the sadder you pretend to be under the spotlight of Facebook, the more you signal how much of a compassionate person you are to others. Such people are often grieving for people they have not met, from countries that they are yet to visit.

Occasionally I have felt coerced to join the virtue-signalling mob myself. I added the filter of the French flag to my photo, to express international solidarity after the attacks in Paris. But this felt, and was, largely futile. Moreover, such filters begin to become emblems of something altogether different; how grief and solidarity are being transformed into a fashion statement. Which seems pretty sordid to me, when you consider the occasion which warranted the outing of French flag to begin with.

But if you complain, or don’t conform to these trends, then you risk looking heartless or callous. This, if nothing else, is an excellent marketing strategy by Facebook; but it is revealing that the company does not feel remotely put off from standing to profit on such occasions of mass death, (advertising revenue) and more revealing still that people are all too happy to help them do so.

I’m getting a creeping sense that you’re beginning to think that I’m being a sullen curmudgeon about this, so afford me the right to push against that. I think that in today’s world, we need to be internationalists, providing solidarity wherever we can. But ask yourself, is something as superficial as changing your profile picture to add a filter, really doing something to help the victims, or to prevent it from happening again? Solidarity used to be something that you demonstrated with real actions; like writing something with substance to influence civil society, donating blood for the health of the victims, or backing up words with wallets.

After the Jo Cox murder, and more generally with politically motivated massacres, you tend to hear the same diatribes, which go along the lines of; ‘Don’t politicise this attack, give us time to mourn.’ As Orwell notes, ‘The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” This same ironic truth can be applied on a wider basis to those who ask others to refrain from politicising a tragic event too soon. But, given that such Islamist and Neo-Nazi attacks are by their nature political acts, they can’t really be politicised any more than they already are. I would be tempted to go further, and say that to try to de-politicise such acts is to cloud the true motives of the murderers. Without politicising such attacks, we will hamper our own understanding of the motives behind them, and will, without political solutions, continue to suffer them.