Changing Facebook Profile Pictures To Mourn Paris Attacks Is An Empty Gesture

26/11/2015 8:34 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
JOEL SAGET via Getty Images
A man sets up a collage next to a graffiti reading 'Pray for Paris' in a street of Paris on November 22, 2015 in tribute to the victims of November 13 attacks in Paris. Islamic State jihadists claimed a series of coordinated attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris that killed at least 130 people in scenes of carnage at a concert hall, restaurants and the national stadium. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE, MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION, TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

I have absolutely no problems with flag filters on Facebook. Or for that matter, the profile-picture revolutions that happen all too often. I'm not in the least indignant about such a competitive exhibitionism of feeling -- indexed through a currency of memes and emoticons. In an age of such mass-production of violence ("terroristic" or "humanitarian"!), it is no surprise that the event of mourning must become a symptom of the incompatibility between "act" and "response". A funereal Facebook must therefore bleed profile pictures, because that seems the only charter of our most intimate emotions. We naturally do not care if Facebook is using the Paris tragedy as a marketing platform, as long as it helps us reclaim a deeply "personal" angst in the face of 130 anonymous but "spectacular" deaths.

Tragedies that translate into capital have a perverse legitimacy. Which is why the Iraq invasion has been easily cheer-led into "pitiless wars" by actors on both sides of history. The everyday routines of nameless, faceless horror fail to muster the Aristotelian grandeur of "tragedy", and therefore must be glossed over while the buck is passed on. Outrage should be reserved and selectively apportioned unto events that shade the world conveniently into flag-colours and religions, into Syrians and Parisians, the bad Muslim and good Muslim, terror-attacks and humanitarian intervention.

"Outrage should be reserved and selectively apportioned unto events that shade the world conveniently into flag-colours and religions, into Syrians and Parisians, the bad Muslim and good Muslim..."

The mass-murder in France can now justifiably allow us to see the world as divided into two moral constituencies: the good and the evil, without a hint of complication or complicity. The mythological fantasy of a world of united interests -- fighting the supernatural scourge of the devil -- is suddenly possible in our times of stark nuclear realism. Outrage now must know how to multiply itself in the sheer numerical explosion of profile pictures, brandishing which side of this "holy war" we are on. We are a people fighting death with digital ammunition -- because the narrative that we find ourselves in exactly resembles a videogame. There are rules, of course -- like, French flag-filters must by default dye clean all traces of feeling for Palestine.

We forget that the anti-terror campaign is as easily lubricated by this industry of outrage as America's war against ISIS is oiled by its own en-Gulfing hunger. Signature campaigns must reproduce the binary of the terrible terrorists as "not like us" and we must wall-spout "je suis"slogans as finally legislating a free market of (always morally righteous!) emotion. The rhetorical charge of "terrorism" has made possible a multinational order of nationalism -- where each one of us can potentially impersonate every other of the "virtuous"(i.e. modern and developed) nations at once. All we need is what Megan Garber of The Atlantic calls an "empathy button" on Facebook. It is easy to claim identification with victims we have never known, and concurrently mark difference from an order of the "intimate other" parading as "refugees", "immigrants" and "racial minorities". To "flag" the victim as a perfectly identifiable unity of the "we-and-us" and the criminal as a wholly and radically "other" that we need not account for (whether in civil life or census reports) is the social media understanding of justice.

I still can live with the flag filters on Facebook, despite the colour-shaded binary understanding of the world that it promotes through an urgency of emotion. Such a mass-registering of indignation --we are consoled -- proves that the vacuous spectre of humanity is still not entirely desensitised to death and destruction. True, we discriminate between the dead, but there's still a little hope between now and the time when death becomes no more than statistical data. There's still a little bit of the human left in us, all social media analysts tell us in a voice modulated with an extra dollop of pathos.

"The rhetorical charge of 'terrorism' has made possible a multinational order of nationalism -- where each one of us can potentially impersonate every other of the 'virtuous' (i.e. modern and developed) nations at once."

What disturbs me is that this digital residue of the "human" is no premise for what is termed as a coming to political consciousness. The minimum essence of the "universal human" necessarily assumes the moral high-ground of "humanitarianism". It is a logical outcome of a history of modernity that begins with the humanist man as its subject, passes through the ethnological discourse of cultural otherness in "human rights" and is now at the service of a neo-imperial project of humanitarian intervention-as-charity.

To view the Paris massacre as meriting an act of charity (by giving away what was earlier one's own --a profile picture!) on social media is regressive "political messaging" -- not an act of solidarity. It views the dead as simply eliciting a moral-emotional response, while brushing away the weight of political conscience into the backyards of history. It can be an outlet for outrage, but it is separated from every claim to solidarity by the very space of reason. One needs to think through outrage, in order to escape its erotic charm. A politics of solidarity is precisely that act of thinking-through, which cracks the easy binary and the moral dualism.

The expression of solidarity always runs the risk of a reductive analogy between those living and the ones killed, the third-party observers and the victims. It desperately searches for a common ground of experience -- and in the lack of any such, posits a universal moral imaginary of "humanness" as collapsing the specificities of history. Solidarity, therefore, often becomes an excuse for reproducing the value of the "good" as same-ness (with "us") and as replaceable (with "them"). The most recognisable form of solidarity monotonously repeats that "it could have been any one of us". The constant need to imagine oneself as potentially vulnerable to the forces of "evil" not only repeats the melodramatic solipsism of "virtue" that Euro-American international policy reeks of -- but also indicates an unwillingness to engage with the other on its own terms. Incidentally, the "empathy" demanded by an act of digital moulting performs a similar uncritical erasure of history.

To conclude with the discomfiture of memory, the last that our country witnessed such an upsurge of mediatised nationalism was when Modi announced his pet project, Digital India, at Silicon Valley. The 800 million Indians who were reported to be digitally empowered by the project are also the ones without minimum access to one or more basic infrastructures like food, housing, electricity, education or employment. Who, then, were our tricolour filters expressing solidarity with? The victims of structural forms of social deprivation or the harbingers of a token empowerment?

A version of this article has been published in Kaafila.

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