The Age of Controversy
I never thought that I will ever feel compelled to publish an attitude on the Internet. Neither the anti-vaccine or homeopathy movements that I feel so strongly about (well, against, just to be clear) nor the global conspiracy theories that are populating my FB wall have ever driven me to formulate a response. I thought it is a way to resist the transformation of the most popular social network from what I liked it to be (a way to keep in touch with friends and family) to the virtual version of the Speaker’s Corner.
But some controversial aspects of recent events in Paris and the (over) reactions I saw as a result have irritated me so much that I saw no other option than to fall into the trap of having an opinion and making it public. Of course, this post will finally have the same effect that thousands of other opinions written and shared had – meaning absolutely none, because, really, who’s changing the way of looking at things as a result of reading someone else’s article? We read and share only those views that come to reinforce our existing ones.
However, I thought that trying to channel the frustration will have an effect ON ME, because it’ll force me to collect more information, structure the data and try to come up with relevant arguments to support a position. So, even if no-one will ever read this, at least I will be a better and more informed person at the end of the process.
Down to the subject, now.
As a result of the recent attacks in Paris, some of my friends have changed their profile with the now famous superimposed French flag – an action that lead to two main types of responses:
- Following the example
- Sharing opinions, pictures and texts outlining the inequality of putting the French tragedy above some others (Lebanon, Kenya, etc.). Low quality sarcasm like “I cannot change my profile because there is no place for all the flags” or “You will not share this because African lives do not matter” have popped out along my feed.
I decided NOT to change the profile picture not because I shared opinion 2 or 3 but because I believe that liking and sharing on Facebook have the same effect in real life as putting tan lotion on a wooden leg. You either go out and do something or accept to be part of the silent majority.
However, this is a personal attitude and does not take anything away from the good intentions of those who DID change their profile picture. Yes, you can debate Facebook decision to offer the “I’m safe” option for Paris and not for Beirut but this is hardly the point for the majority of those whose profile now adorns the French flag. Facebook is a private enterprise, not a charity determined to create a fair world.
The reason why they did it (I believe) was not to show solidarity with the French people necessarily, but to use a symbol for the will to protect a set of values we consider essential for our happiness and fulfilment, and those of our children. And frankly, with all due respect, they are better represented by the French colours than the Kenyan ones. Because the attacks in Paris are the ones perceived as attacks on our values and life style (the abominations Islamic extremists refer to in their motivation), not the ones in a Shiite neighbourhood in Beirut.
There is, in the journalistic jargon, a well known law, referred to in French “la loi du mort-kilomètre” – I believe the equivalent in English is “the Proximity Law” but, to me, it does sound a lot better in French. This basically states that 2 deaths in a subway accident in Paris or London resonates to European public more than 100 victims in a train accident on the other side of the world, in India or Bolivia.
An absolute cynical law, but one that any news editor worth his salt knows: a French viewer identify himself with an English commuter, with whom he shares a similar life style, and less with an inhabitant of Mumbai who, however, also goes to work every day.
Applied to terrorism, this rule says that what we like to think of as “global collective emotions” are actually of variable geometry: all victims of terrorism do not weight the same in our personal “emotions stock”. The terrorists the have well understood this, and it’s why they targeted Paris and its inhabitants.
The way I explain the responses from people, both natural, decent and appropriate:
Beirut-Paris, the same suffering?
24 hours before Paris, the self-proclaimed Islamic State struck Beirut, specifically the Shiite neighborhood of Borj el-Barajneh, causing 43 deaths and 239 injured. It is the bloodiest bombing in the Lebanese capital for over twenty years.
But this attack did not elicit the same emotion that the attacks of Paris by the same authors, 24 hours later. No cedar-illuminated monuments, no black-barred profile pictures on social networks, no candlelight vigils around the world.
Moreover, soon, the attack in Beirut was overshadowed by the events in Paris, unprecedented in their scope and modus operandi, terrifying by the coldness of their execution.
Why this difference in treatment?
It was needed for a few people to be moved by the similarity of the attacks for the world to begin to show the link between the two bereaved capitals: Paris-Beirut, the same suffering. First they were Lebanese, but soon all over the world people called to remember Lebanon.
Why this difference in treatment? In fact, it’s the same social identification mechanism as in the”la loi du mort-kilomètre” for train accidents.
Everyone, from San Francisco to Sydney via Warsaw can identify with a young Parisian present at a rock concert, remembers that he went or dreamed of going on holiday in Paris; no one will identify with the inhabitant of a Shiite district of Beirut, even if it’s a young person of the same age not unlike the Parisian victim …
Empathy allows us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and to try to understand how it must feel to be in their situation. Most people show high levels of empathy towards those they familiar with, which is why we can solace in the tough times, from people close to us.
Unfortunately when events occur far away ourselves, in places we never been, and to a people we have never met, the strength of the empathy is diminished.
How can an individual know how another feels if they know nothing of that individual.
Empathy is not just a reactive emotion, it also guides our actions. I do not think anyone carrying out a premeditated attack feels high levels empathy to their victims. I am sure each ‘terrorists’ are not devoid of empathy and love their family and close friends, though they do not empathise with their victims, believing they are different. Ensuring that individuals can empathise with any individual, is the only method to prevent attacks like these from happening.
Even with knowledge that we are showing disparities empathy it hard to ‘force,’ after all is an emotion and it is not rational.
Keeping the proportions, asking people to put many flags on their FB profile is like asking them to mourn the death of some unknown from another city the same way they do for a friend or a relative.
2. True and false symmetries
If the relative lack of compassion for the victims of the bombing of Beirut result of representations forged over time, there is another debate on the different treatment of victims, which is more disturbing. And this is something I believe everyone should pay attention to, with or without a French flag on their profile, because it is one that the pro-jihadists entertain on social networks.
The site for the surveillance of terrorist online activities SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) published this extract from discussions around this issue. A netizen asked Israfil Yilmaz, a Dutchman who describes himself as Islamic State fighter, if he is favourable to the attacks in Paris.
The reply : “I support the attacks of Paris as long as the French Government is bombing and terrorises innocent Muslims in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Does it seem fair to you that Muslim blood is flowing for decades without anyone getting bothered? And yet, when we respond, doing what they do to us and using the same methods, it becomes a big deal. “
The site lists many other similar positions on social platforms and jihadist networks, which all put on the same level the victims of attacks such as those that have just occurred in Paris, and the victims of “imperialist wars “in the Muslim world.
The tired speech of democracies
This symmetry will be judged intolerable by any Western reader who refuses to put on the same level an act of absolute terror such as an attack on a concert hall or a restaurant, and the military operations of a regular army theoretically targeting legitimate objectives.
It is clear, however, that Western military adventures of the past decade in Afghanistan where the “liberators” of 2001 were imperceptibly mutated into “occupiers” in the eyes of parts of the population, and especially Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, which caused the collapse of States and endless bloody chaos, weakened the noble speech of the great democracies.
Westerners’ legitimate compassion for “their” victims of terrorism should not forget other victims of terrorism, neither should it prevent a serious introspection of their own behaviour, especially in Arab and Muslim countries.
This larger message of compassion and solidarity is not only “normal”; it is also the only way to deconstruct the rhetoric of extremists who denounce our hypocrisies to better cover their own crimes.
Recently I witnessed another reaction from a small minority in Romania to the “flag movement” which basically says that one should not show support for the French people because they see us, Romanians, only as beggars and they made fun of our own.
Besides the argument that the French flag does not show support necessarily the French people, but it is used a symbol to a way of living we believe in (see no. 1 above), I assume that those entertaining this view have never lived for a long time in Western country with a significant Romanian minority.
Romanian pickpockets, scammers and beggars, though a minority, are a visible social plague which bothers and affects everyone, including (or mainly) us, the Romanians living abroad. As any other social issue yes, it may make its way in studies, journalistic investigations, tabloids and TV shows, including satirical ones. If the quality of the humour proposed is low (and, in the specific French case, it is) this has nothing to do with us, but with what the viewers demand and are used to.
Contrary to many other people, the French debate is relying on polemic more than dialogue. This is their way of reaching conclusions, by taking extreme (and sometimes exaggerating) stands, shouting arguments over table, engaging in heated debates and use loud rhetoric. This seems to spill over also in other area of the French public life, including humour, which, for many, is loud and clown-like moquerie, not a deep, dry British double sense fine comedy.
However, I wonder if some of our own shows portraying Gypsies or Hungarians are of a different quality.
Anyone who lived outside the borders and who is not indoctrinated by the Romanian superiority attitude (like Dacian being the source of Latin language and other non-sense) is able to make the difference between media and real life. Anyone who ever stayed in France away from Paris is aware that the stereotypes about Romanians only hold where there actually we are part of the problem. We’re just another on a long list of targets (Blacks, Jewish, Arabs, etc.) which proved important or present enough to become worthy of satire. As low and unfair this might be, stupidly opposing it it would just support the attacking Charlie Hebdo attitude.
If you want a serious view on the Romanians in the dubious satirical world of the French you need to read articles like this one in Le Monde not to rely on Facebook-shared simplistic ideas.
You cannot judge the French people based on a late night TV show anymore than you can judge the Romanians based on Dan Capatos.