Grief police: the politics of sympathy

The terrorist attacks in Paris triggered a widespread reaction all over the world, but it wasn’t all the same. First, there was grief. People grieved for those they knew and didn’t, changed their profile pictures to the colours of the French flag and shared emotional posts by victims and journalists alike. And then there were those who criticised the ways people expressed that grief. Some remembered the bombing in Beirut just a day earlier that went almost unnoticed. Others were upset that no one changed their profile pictures to the colours of the Russian flag when flight A321 got shot down.

We can blame the media for portraying the two terrorist acts in different lights (the Times changed the title of the Beirut bombing article three times, from “Deadly Blast Hit Hezbollah Area in Southern Beirut” to then replacing “Area” with “Stronghold” and, finally, after a backlash, to “Deadly Blast Hit Crowded Neighborhood in Southern Beirut”). The ways the media depicted these terrorist acts are different, and naturally so are our reactions.

Despite that, I don’t believe that the media is to blame. As Martin Belam, a journalist for the BBC and the Guardian wrote in his blog, the media covered attacks in Beirut equally and immediately – it went unnoticed because people aren’t as interested in events outside Europe so not many read it and shared it. Most of us at some point enjoyed a dinner in a café in Central Paris on a Friday night. Very few had taken a stroll in a Beirut residential area.

Yet what to me is even more shocking is how instead of focusing on the tragedies, people began to slam others who are grieving. “You aren’t grieving right”. People who openly expressed their sadness were mocked as their “profile pictures wouldn’t save lives”.

These people are missing the point. In times of tragedies and terror we have to unite, not find faults with each other. We don’t need “Grief Police”, we need acceptance. Let others show their support in the way they see fit and appreciate that support. Don’t blame the media for “wrong coverage” – the media did their job, but maybe next time we hear about a terrorist attack in a faraway place we should pay more attention to it and share the news. Show your love to Muslims, people who may feel alienated by these recent events that are not their fault. Negativity is the last thing we need at this time.

This being said, the argument that such expressions of compassion are Euro-centric and can make victims of other terrorist acts feel inferior is valid and deserves being voiced. All lives matter equally, and white supremacy is still very real, with these features only reinforcing it. Still, this does not diminish the genuine, true solidarity felt by people after these tragic terrorist attacks, which is what we should focus on.

Sympathy is not something to judge others by. Even worse, ridicule. Nothing good will come out of treating human kindness and compassion with contempt. It only feeds into the environment of hostility where eventually no one will want to express their feelings at the fear of doing so wrongly.

The option to colour your profile pictures into the French Tricolor is the first such response by Facebook to a tragic event. It produced a backlash, and rightfully so. How quickly this backlash turned into hostility, with people feeling that their expression of solidarity is superior is deeply worrying. We should take this situation and learn from it. At times, we all act insensitively. But please, let’s not attack each other for expressions of kindness and messages of love. The biggest lesson we should learn from all this is one of solidarity, not just with the victims, but with each other as well.

Image: Mic (Flickr)

Related News

Say something

The Student Newspaper 2016