This is our truth, tell us yours
I had not intended to write about the attacks on Paris. Carter summed up many of my thoughts with these tweets, and experts in geopolitics have written far more wisely than I can, I particularly found this article helpful.
However the clickbait article in the Independent attacking people for changing their facebook profile pics to the tricolour struck me as indicative of why so many people are excluded from debates I feel compelled to try to put my thoughts down.
Firstly let me say I dont generally like flags on profiles, I recognise people by their avatars, rather than their names, so everyone looking the same means I struggle. I dont know if this is a visual processing problem due to my dyspraxia, but suspect it is. It’s not a huge issue, it does mean if you change your twitter avatar I am not deliberately ignoring you. No doubt many other people with visual impairments struggle when a face is hidden behind a overlaid flag, its probably worth remembering this on both twitter and facebook.
I see a lot of, “its tokenism” criticism however, and I am never sure what “tokenism” is. Yes, I suppose if your french hating, ISIS supporting cousin changes their avatar to a tricolour they may be a tad hypocritical. By the same measure, people who are actively homophobic or transphobic posting rainbow flags may need to go away and live in a very dark hole somewhere. However all most of us have is tokens. Unless you spend your entire life apart from eating, drinking and sleeping dedicated to the causes you support, whatever you do is to some extent a token. I am not saying here consistency doesnt matter, but any judgement of what is enough activism is based on personal opinion nothing more. I am reminded here of a friend who is physically disabled, who changed their facebook avatar. His ability to engage in meatspace is limited to very large degree, the internet is his social support network, should his actions be described as tokenism because they do not meet some abled benchmark?
Another criticism I have seen, and not just in the Independent piece is that more attention was paid to the Paris attacks than the Beirut attacks. This cannot be denied, although again it is a partly about framing. More attention was paid by western media, I am pretty sure that in the Lebanon more attention was paid to the Beirut attacks. I am not just being pedantic here, as this piece from Think Progress discusses humans tend to show more empathy to events they can relate too.This is actually quite an important defence mechanism. The natural outcome of saying we must feel the impact of every death equally would be such intense amounts of distress daily that we would be unable to function. This does not mean we should not question why certain things are not reported more. The fact that media which is based in the US/Europe is centers whiteness is a feature of colonialism, capitalism and history. It is a huge problem, but it is also a product of our society at this current moment. Question that by all means, but do not blame people who do not have power within our society for the what the media produces.
Empathy can of course be developed. A large part of my college course consisted of learning different theories of abuse, of what causes people to abuse, to stay with abusers, to turn a blind eye to or be actively complicit in abuse. It led to some people on my course moving from victim blaming to victim understanding. Empathy is not an instinctive reaction, this is what distinguishes it from sympathy, but instead is born from a combination of reason and feeling, the heart and the mind united.
Given this we really need to ask ourselves what value comes from attacking people showing some form of compassion and empathy? If, as it seems to be, empathy is something that can be developed, any act, no matter how small should be seen as positive. It may just be a token today, but who knows where it might lead? One thing we can be sure of, is that if someone is attacked when they make a small act, they are far less likely to do anything next time, and are certainly unlikely to do anything more.
This is not to say that people do need to look further than their own backyard, after all if empathy is a concept we develop, its denying others the chance to grow, and be better, more empathetic. Perhaps we need to frame it more like this though, than the constant criticism from some quarters of not being good enough. I have had many private conversations about sex work activism which wonder how many ordinary sex workers are put off activism by the fear they won’t say the right thing. I wonder how many other people stay silent out of a similar fear? Maybe changing your avatar is as much as some people feel able to do, since voicing an opinion may make them a target? When even that small act is criticised is the reaction not likely to be less empathy and compassion, for anyone? How can that be seen as a good thing?