At risk of adding to the already existing flood of ink spilt in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut last week, I want to reflect on the nature of our Social Justice Warrior responses online. I have been personally challenged by the fine line between my righteous anger and my self-righteousness, particularly in the transition from sensitivity to the media’s narrow focus on Paris to judgement of those who changed their profile picture to the French flag, or who shared stories of Paris without sharing stories of Beirut.
Why was I so quick to assume the worst? Perhaps that person did only re-tweet that article because they wanted to look like they cared. And perhaps that otherperson only shared that other article because they wanted to look like they knew better than that first deluded category. But what is it to me? So what if everyone I know online doesn’t actually know about anything, or care about anything, or think about anything for more than five minutes? Why do I think I’m any better? I might, on some quantifiable scale, be more ‘informed’, but what good does that do? Has being more informed actually changed my behaviour in any visible sense?
And, if it has, how much? Have I changed enough to deem myself qualified to judge the actions or intentions of other people? I know myself enough to know the answer: certainly not.
Of course, it is true that some people are more invested in what happens outside their own bubble than others, and I believe that the more all of us have our bubbles interrupted the better. But this scale of caring is constantly shifting, and no social media anger algorithm can possibly calculate it. The reality is that we live under Hierarchies of Caring that we can’t just dispose of. There is something ‘natural’ about the fact that I will care more about people or places closer to me and closer to my lived experience. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t challenge Hierarchies of Caring, particularly when I notice a loss of perspective, but it does mean I shouldn’t pretend I don’t operate under them too. Superiority complexes don’t make good leaders of change.
And now we are faced with one such perspective threatening moment. Only a week after the attacks in Paris, the US House of Representatives has voted to tighten restrictions on Syrian and Iraqi refugee settlement. Has our fear driven out any perspective at all? It’s very easy to be angry about this decision online. But will I doanything about it? Will I raise my voice above the level of shouting on social media and accumulating virtual affirmation? And how will I respond to those whose fear or anger is supporting closed hearts and borders?
I wanted to share the words of a friend of mine who lives in Paris. It appeared on my Facebook timeline last week as one glowing note of promise in an anthem of accusations.
“Online, I’m crying over articles about Syria.
Online, I’m crying over articles about France.
Online, I’m seeing pictures of lifeless bodies against my will.
Online, I’m feeling guilty for caring about Paris, my current home, because
Online, caring about France means being brainwashed by Western media.
Online, we’re competing in our outrage.
Online, we’re deciding the weight of a Syrian life is less than that of an English life.
Online, our sensitivity is being replaced by self-righteousness.
Online, we’re blaming refugees, then Muslims, then Arabs, then government, then media, then each other.
Today, in Paris, I am also an immigrant.
Today, in Paris, my friends kiss my cheeks softly.
Today, in Paris, ten people ask if I’m okay.
Today, in Paris, my husband picks me up from the station to walk me home.
Today, in Paris, I see an Algerian friend who worried about us all weekend.
Today, in Paris, I see people laughing, kissing, talking, walking, commuting, continuing.
Today, in Paris, I’m seeing unity in mourning.
Today I’m realising that the most dangerous place is not Paris.”
Image: ‘Duty Calls’, by xkcd.com (http://xkcd.com/386/)
Rev. John Magee Fellow, Dwight Hall at Yale
M.A.R. World Christianities, Yale Divinity School