In defence of the Facebook flag fad

Since the terror attacks in Paris, social media have been flooded with emotional messages, hashtags and peace symbols of the Eiffel Tower. Facebook even allowed its users to filter their profile pictures with the Tricolor in a show of sympathy. But no sooner had these digital shows of solidarity from around the world appeared than the self-righteous criticism began: ‘What about Palestine, Syria, Lebanon?’; ‘Don’t be complicit in Facebook’s corporate white supremacism!’; ‘How dare you show such shallow slacktivism?’

Yes, Facebook may well be perpetuating some form of selective sympathy, and, yes, there is violence in other areas of the world. But there are two main reasons for the sheer scale of the Western reaction to the Paris attacks. The first is human nature: showing remorse for those closest to you, culturally and geographically, is natural. In a world without such natural inclinations, grieving Parisians would be singing the Lebanese national anthem, to commemorate the victims of last week’s Beirut bombings, alongside the Marseillaise.

The second is the rarity of these kinds of attacks in Western Europe. No one can claim that an event like the Paris massacre is a frequent occurrence in the West. Of course, thousands of people are killed every day in conflicts around the world, from central Africa to the Middle East. Many of these conflicts have been raging for years, and, yes, the media have reported them for years. What is selective here, then, is less the media than the interests of internet users. Criticising people for paying far more attention to a sudden and unexpected attack in the West than they do to, say, a car bomb in Libya, denies the significance of the Paris attacks.

Worse still are those on their high horses chastising fellow social-media users for ‘empty’ displays of sympathy, claiming that the French need something material from us, something that ‘matters’. Yet sympathy and support from across the world are always appreciated by victims of tragedies – and they show unity against the terrorists. ‘Damn that kid in Indonesia for not donating to the French Red Cross and just changing his profile pic! In fact, he should fly to Paris now to donate blood!’, said no Parisian ever.

Some critics of the profile-picture trend seem to think they’re morally superior. ‘I’ve donated to charity’, they say. ‘I haven’t given in to this shallow peer pressure.’ Their assumption that other people’s sympathy is somehow disingenuous and shallow is one of the most distasteful elements of the post-attacks reaction.

The idea that sympathy for the victims of the Paris attacks and its public expression are mutually exclusive is illogical and condescending. What’s more, the claim that most people simply ‘followed the herd’ and blindly adhered to Facebook’s evil corporate racism belittles the intelligence of people who are more than capable of making their own critical judgements and choices. Changing one’s profile picture as a mark of respect won’t last, of course. But then again, what public vigil is ever permanent?

The greatest irony of all this is that those who have publicly condemned others for supposedly empty virtue-signalling are doing it themselves. In their snobbish posturing over other people’s displays of compassion, the moral crusaders are guilty of the same empty public gestures they mock.

Each individual’s reaction to events is unique. Presuming to know whether another’s sympathy is sincere or ersatz, profound or shallow, is arrogant, and criticising others’ reactions is even more so. Let people react how they want; moralising doesn’t help anyone.

Joe Arthur is a spiked intern.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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