Paris, Solidarity, and the Shame Game: A Defense of Mourning and a Commentary on Selective Grief

We, as a nation, have undoubtedly risen to stand in solidarity with Paris. Thousands of profile pictures have been overlain with the French flag. People are posting their personal photos of the Eiffel Tower. News articles and videos are being shared hundreds of times. The terrorist attacks continue to be on every major news outlet, every radio station, every heart and mind.

This has necessarily led to somewhat of a movement on the part of those that are questioning why it is we Americans are so quick to show our care and compassion for France when there are comparable, even at times more horrific, tragedies happening in other countries the world over. These free-thinkers ask of us, “Where are those countries’ flag overlays? Where are the safety check-in features for them? Where are the prayers, the memes, the heartfelt outrage for people of color who have lost entire families due to this same type of violence and terror?”

Good questions.

Not so good follow up.

My frustration is not with the many thoughtful advocates in this world who rightfully seek to open the eyes and hearts of a privileged culture that is undeniably biased towards the tragedies of countries and people “like us.”

My frustration is with the tactics they’ve been using over the past three days.

I can’t count the number of people on my own feed who have recently posted about the massacre in Kenya. 147 killed. No one will deny it was terrible, just as terrible as the events in Paris.

It happened back in April.

No, the passage of time shouldn’t dim our compassion. And no, it didn’t receive the same amount of media attention that Paris has, and that’s wrong. We need to admit that that’s wrong.

But do we really need to repost an eight month old tragedy to prove we are somehow more enlightened, more globally conscious, more capable of proclaiming tragedy on our Facebook feed than the hundreds of people changing their profile pictures to the French flag overlay? No. No, we don’t. I remember that day in April vividly. I remember reading about it, hearing about it, talking about it. I remember praying about it. It’s not like it passed unnoticed, although that’s what some have claimed with misdirected indignation. The fact is, Kenya has had new and different tragedies happen since then, and they don’t need your arrogance coming 8 months after the fact just so you can stroke your ego and feel superior to the masses: “Look, I’m posting about this non-white event, call me aware and unbiased!”

I remember Kenya. I prayed fervently for Kenya, just as I prayed fervently for Nepal not long after, and Syria, and the many other countries where violence and tragedy seem to dwell and linger. As did my church. And my community. These events were talked about and shared. But Facebook didn’t have the profile picture overlays for them. (Actually, I don’t think they introduced the overlays until after SCOTUS passed marriage equality into law, but that may be beside the point.) Regardless, I’m willing to admit the biased emotional response that Paris elicited over and against Beirut and Baghdad implies a larger systemic problem. It’s a problem that we need to face as a country together.

But using shame to make a point is not the way forward. It’s not the way to open hearts or minds. It is a darn quick way to close them.

Yes, please let’s talk about Western privilege! We need to talk about why we are more concerned with predominantly white European countries than countries inhabited by people of color. We need to question why the deaths of Christians elicit more heartache and willingness to stand “in solidarity” than the deaths of non-Christians. We need to talk about internalized racism, and band-wagon mentality, and colonialism. We need to hold France accountable to their own racist and colonialist history and present just as we should hold our own government accountable to their problematic and dehumanizing policies and actions. All of this needs to be talked about on the global stage.

But the anger and condemnation expressed towards those who truly do find themselves effected by the events in Paris on Friday is unnecessary and unhelpful to that cause.

I have seen posts such as, “Don’t pray for Paris,” and “Don’t change your profile picture because France is the fourth worst colonizer in the world.” I’ve read sarcastic statuses about how those who stand in solidarity with Paris remain mute on the pain of the rest of the world, and fail to show solidarity to anyone else. “Look at all these idiot sympathizers,” some of these writings seem to say. “How misguided can you get?” Like a flag overlay somehow makes you incapable of feeling any other pain.

This is blatantly untrue.

The friends and family I know and love with red, white, and blue profile pictures are incredibly thoughtful, generous human beings who are determined to educate themselves on world matters. I understand there is a lot that could be said with the symbol of the French flag, just as there is a lot that can be said of our own. Symbols are hugely loaded with whatever is projected onto them. France has done some pretty terrible things, as have we, and our flags carry that history. Does that mean we simply get rid of them? What about the countless countries that are being terrorized, not just by jihadists and extremists, but by our own governments? Those flags have similar histories of violence on their own people. Do we toss them out as well? (I’m falling into a dangerous argument here, I can feel it. Because I am definitely anti-confederate flag. I need to think on this more deeply. Please comment if you can help me out of this web.)

I’ve digressed. The problem is not the individual, but the culture and the availability and visibility of media.

The message from the attacking side has somehow become less about culture change, and more about individual shaming. If you change your profile picture to represent France, it must be because you have no care or compassion or sympathy for the rest of the world, or you are pro-colonization and pro-oppression. If you openly talk about mourning for Paris, there’s must be no room in your heart for the rest of the world, and therefore you are a racist and an elitist. I don’t believe this is the intended message (maybe it is), but it’s certainly felt internally when I read these scathing critiques of the sharing choices of the social media masses. It’s the Shame Game.

Wanna know how to open the conversation well, without the implied shame and guilt? Here’s how:

“We can be in solidarity, but we should also be critical of our blind spots and motivations for such solidarity. Just because this particular type of violence now seems “real” or “close to home” doesn’t mean it isn’t happening to people and communities all over. The places from which thousands of refugees are fleeing have been seeing bombings and shoot-outs for weeks, months, and years. Where is our compassion for them? The legacies of racism and colonialism aren’t absent from our “solidarity” no matter how hard we try. Let’s not fall asleep on that fact.” – (A really smart and kind friend of mine)

The appropriate reaction is, yes, let’s mourn Paris. And then let’s also state that we need to evaluate our reactions to those who suffer, and what the criteria is for our solidarity. And then we need to actually work towards making that better, and not just shout each other down.

Don’t make Paris a bullhorn for your own agenda. Don’t condemn those who hurt. Do open up the conversation to include larger structures of violence and oppression. Do allow yourself to feel the pain of the world. Don’t make it into a competition to see who can post about the most grief in the shortest amount of time. That’s not solidarity either.

The reality is that I do need to work harder to be in solidarity with all those who suffer, not just on social media, but real, feet-on-the-ground solidarity. Not just with a flag overlay, but with companionship and accompaniment. Not just for France but for my own neighbors in Nashville who are being squeezed out by gentrification and homelessness, for refugees who are fleeing their homes, for the sick, and imprisoned, and for all those my faith teaches me I’m supposed to know and love. And I thank all those who have made that point clear to me with love and mercy. Thank you.

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One final unrelated point, and this is more to start a discussion than a defense. For me personally, Paris is more than just some distant white European country. It has a piece of my heart. I’ve always loved Paris, since I was tiny. I had the privilege to visit in 2008, when I spent the summer in France (and yes, I see and feel the innate privilege that statement carries).

But we sometimes forget the importance of place and geography in our identity narratives. I was changed by that country in ways I can’t explain. I grew up there in the sense it was the first time I truly felt like a capable adult.

My guess is that many Americans have similar feelings and experiences of that beloved city, especially those privileged enough to have traveled and lived there. On the other hand, it is an unfortunate but influencing truth that many of us have not had (or perhaps not taken is better phrasing) the opportunity to travel to non-western countries like Syria, Iraq, Kenya, and others where violence and death seem to play a daily role. So the position of place in our collective consciousness is perhaps more powerfully felt when the tragedy occurs on soil we’ve placed our feet upon, not because it is “close to home,” but because it is in a sense a literal part of our home.

And doesn’t that make sense? Is it not okay for me to feel a deep sense of loss over Paris that I might not be capable of feeling in the same way over a place I’ve never been? Don’t misread me, please. I’m not saying the deaths or the depths of the tragedy is any different, but that the memory and felt reality of the place is forever altered for me. Like when a tornado happens in Texas, I’m necessarily more engaged in thew news of it than I would be if a tornado were to happen in Kansas. The destruction might be the same, but Texas is my home, and I owe my personhood to it. Not that I can’t be touched by loss in Kansas, but it’s not the same. Does anyone get this or understand it at all? Can you help me nuance it?

Many thanks to Michael Kozoile, who wrote this article and said,

“Grief is not a competition to be the most even-handed, the most objective, the least corrupted. Grieving is personal, subjective, uncontrollable. If you feel the need to pray or cry for the people of Paris – because you’ve walked their streets, befriended their people, lived their lifestyle – then you should do so, freely and without the judgment of others.”

He has a lot more to say about challenging yourself to go deeper, but he says it better than I could, so please read it.

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