No Blue, White and Red Tonight, I’m Heartless

If you have been on Facebook over the last few days following the tragic events in France, you will have noticed how much more blue, white and red the social network site appears to be.

Apparently this is the way empathy is defined these days. And it does not take long for people to hop onto the bandwagon and merrily go along for the ride. The point, I would have to assume, is to initiate a global show of solidarity that will inevitably do nothing to help the actual problem at hand but goes a long way at providing a sense of peace for everyone who has joined this so called mass solidarity effort. It’s the “I’ve done my bit” attitude that comes with the simple click of a button.

The problem though with something like this has a few different elements. Firstly, it makes the human race look like a bunch of “monkey-see, monkey-do’ fools who will happily jump on any and every corporate branding initiative that is disguised as an act of human kindness. If you happen to be among the [very] few people who do not change their profile pictures to do your bit, you are often given the side-eye by fellow social media friends or, even better, criticized for not having any kind of heart to empathise with those affected.

But I have to ask – without being labelled a cynic – exactly how changing one’s profile picture helps those affected by the acts of terrorism that has hit their country? It almost appears to be a patronising pat on the shoulder that you get from someone you hardly know when they see you slip and fall in public. It’s the “I know just how you feel” look you get when someone is trying to show you sympathy, when you know for a fact they haven’t got the slightest clue what you undergo because they themselves have not experienced it first-hand.

Unless you or I have witnessed or experienced that degree of tragedy, then any effort of empathy we attempt to make by means of social media is a farce and simply hypocritical. I often wonder, if acts of kindness were not so publicly documented around the world thanks to the Internet, would they still be as popularly practiced?

The second element to this problem is that the entire situation is often turned into something it is not. The situation sadly becomes a double-edged sword that initiates another debate. That of the preference western countries seem to get when it comes to tragedy and loss of life. You have the people who say that if you show solidarity with France then why not show the same amount of solidarity with Lebanon, or Syria itself, or even Kenya. Please note the list is in fact endless and we live in a world of tragic circumstances happening on a daily basis.

If we had to honestly keep up this act of solidarity online, we would be changing our profile pictures faster than changing our underwear.

But more than this, it seems like we as online users are separated into two camps. We are divided between feeling actual genuine empathy (that may not do any good but we still feel it because we are human and often feel helpless in this case) and feeling no empathy but rather saying that the empathy we feel is more deserved by other (non-western) countries.

We thus simplify the problem to such an extent that it no longer becomes about the actual event, which we need not be reminded is terrorism. We then go on to judge each other for not feeling enough empathy because we may not want to change our profile picture on Facebook. When did human feelings become so oversimplified?

I have to also make mention of the fact that this is not a problem isolated to an incident like the Paris attacks. Here, in Mauritius, we have had our fair share of online solidarity prompts. The most highlighted probably though has to be the floods that occurred in Port Louis in 2013. Not long after the incident had begun to become just that – an incident – people were aptly changing profile pictures to a simple black background image. This black image was obviously meant to convey the pain that each and every Mauritian felt that day for what happened to the victims of the floods. And do not get me wrong, I am not downplaying this situation or the Paris attacks in any way but one has to be realistic in the sense that you can still show empathy and solidarity with victims of a natural disaster or terrorist act without standing on your roof and shouting it out for everyone to know you are being sympathetic.

The other issue that is presented with this entire scenario is that it seems to be a blatant way for the corporate world to impede on human tragedy. Because Facebook says this is how you show empathy; everyone loses their mind and thinks they must be doing the right thing forgetting that it does little (or nothing) to help the actual problem.

So yes, I am fully behind feeling empathy. I support that we need to stand tall against the plague that is terrorism and we need to stand tall together as global citizens. I also agree that collectively things can in fact change circumstances but – and this is a big but – it starts with action and not just clicking a few buttons on your Facebook profile before turning off the computer and settling into your favourite series for the week.

Let us not show solidarity because it is what is trending online but rather as one human to another. Let us set aside what looks like the right thing to do because the masses are doing and give the situation the respect it truly deserves, free from any global corporate marketing tools. Lastly, let us remember that we are all human beings and if we were in the same boat as those affected, would random strangers around the world changing their Facebook profile pictures make us feel any better?


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