Social media activism might be just a card game

The myriad damage they inflicted upon the world aside, English aristocrats have left us at least one enduring gift: the terms of venery. From the brutal Anglo hunting tradition, we have derived a wealth of enchanting collective nouns: “a pride of lions,” “a murder of crows,” “a convocation of eagles,” to name a few. In keeping with the demands of the modern world, in which one is more likely to read a tweet on a phone than hear it from the beak of a blackbird, I propose the following addition to this venerable lexicon: a masturbation of hashtags.

This past Friday, DAESH, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, still blood-drunk from its murder of 43 Shi’ite Muslims in Beirut one day earlier, further slaughtered 129 people in a series of coordinated attacks across Paris. Shocked by this wanton act of violence, the Western public reacted with horror and displays of solidarity: the Sydney Opera House and countless Facebook profile pictures were tricolored overnight, prayers were offered for Paris (both in verbal and hashtag form), La Marseillaise was played. Perhaps predictably, this moment of unanimous francophilia was short lived. An army of think piece writers and infantile ultra-leftists, semi-dormant since their “we’re not victim blaming, we swear” campaign against Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, re-emerged to remind us all that, well, there are other tragedies in the world, scores of them, and we should really be ashamed of ourselves if we can’t find room in our hearts to include in our prayerful hashtags and translucent profile flags Beirut, Baghdad, and oh, don’t forget the victims of that Kenyan massacre from back in April. Think pieces, by their nature, beget opposed think pieces (Atlantic bloggers have to make their living doing something, after all), so what followed was a brief battle in our interminable and increasingly inscrutable Kulturkampf, in which sophisticated keyboard smashers groped at meaning, providing possibly-maybe-interesting thoughts about grieving and our shared humanity. Or something.

(I don’t claim that this column is anything more than another salvo in that culture war.)

There’s nothing wrong with statements of support and solidarity. At a funeral, we know that no words of sympathy can bring back the dead, but we say them anyway, because they might in some small way help the bereaved. But we say them for ourselves too, in part so we can remember the person we have lost, but in part too because we want the world to know that we are good people, the kind of people who mourn the loss of other good people, who will deserve mourning in our own inevitable turn.  But Twitter is no mausoleum. The sympathy we offer through it is diffuse; any individual tweet is unlikely to be seen or read by anyone directly affected by the tragedy in question. Our grieving is mostly a way of asserting some sense of our own agency in a world too chaotic for us to truly understand. As individuals, we might not be able to do much to tangibly alleviate the suffering of the wretched, but we can at least imagine ourselves reaching out across oceans, taking their hands. But we have to realize that these acts of solidarity are mostly, if not wholly, for ourselves. At best, they are ways for us to feel more involved in the world beyond our doorstep; at worse, they are ways for us to signal our own virtue to our peers.

That is what strikes me as so distasteful about this latest battle in the Culture War: its self-righteousness. Don’t mistake me: I don’t find anything wrong with widening the scope of one’s empathy beyond the bounds of Western Europe. Nor do I think that filtering one’s profile picture with a translucent Lebanese flag is any more or less authentic (whatever that means) than doing the same with a French flag. What I object to is the bandying out of atrocities as if they were cards in a game. “Ah, yes, I see you are playing Bataclan. Strong move, but I bet you weren’t ready for my Garissa University hand.” Anyone who actually follows world news (and really, it’s not a difficult task) could easily dominate at such a game — “Where,” I could demand, “were the slacktivists when more than a hundred Kurds were killed in a bombing in Ankara, Turkey just a month ago?” But that game is obscene. It convinced one of my Facebook friends that it was somehow humanizing to share pictures of the massacred bodies of one hundred murdered Kenyan students. This is an extreme example — most people have better taste than that. But ultimately, this is what a great deal of the battle consists in: demanding empathy from others while showing a lack of it towards the dead foreigners you use as props, making no real effort to understand the circumstance and the conflict that took their lives, showing no desire to know them as anything but conveniently colored dead bodies. Not all of us fall into this trap. Many are making honest attempts at empathy, at expanding their world of concern. The honest and introspective are, however, flanked by the self-righteous, who demand, “You,” — the collective you, Society in its full grotesque Rousseaun dimensions — “you mourn for Paris, but where were you when people were murdered in Kenya?” They never stop to ask themselves the obvious question: “Where was I?”

This war for our tears obfuscates our actual perpetual military engagement with the Middle East and North Africa. While we fight over self-serving displays of empathy, people in that corner of the world actually die, not because we were insufficiently generous in our grief, but because we refuse to do our duty as democratic citizens and actually check the imperial overreach of our governments. We have accepted more or less passively a constant state of war, in which the great powers throw darts at maps and bomb wherever those darts fall. As we speak, those powers are making Syria into a moonscape. I do not mean to play the game of moral equivalency — it is a stupid, pointless, pernicious game — but merely state the facts. DAESH is evil, unabashedly so. It wears its massacres as badges of honor. But the evil that we do — the governments we destabilize, the power vacuums we create, the innocent lives we take, the homes we destroy — that is just collateral damage, a byproduct of if not necessary, then at least inevitable wars. We never really experience these wars — the average citizen is not asked to enlist or meaningfully contribute — they just happen when we turn on CNN. There is hardly even the pretense of democratic consultation; the President — who once had the audacity to run as an anti-war candidate — simply orders air strikes without congressional approval. Perhaps, instead of waxing narcissistic about who cares the most about which massacres, we could seriously confront our own complicity in this endless cycle of violence. We can actually do something about that.

But that would require more than a Twitter hashtag, and it would certainly require more than an oped in a student newspaper. It would require us to show actual civic virtue rather its feigned Internet equivalent. It would require us to take responsibility for our country as citizens of a democracy. And that’s goddamn hard.

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