Funny thing, activism. I’ve spent the last few days observing how responses to the terrorist attack in Paris evolve from horror to full-on condescending admonishment. All that’s left at the end of the day isn’t forgiveness or feelings of solidarity; it’s confusion, it’s anger, and an even greater sense of hopelessness because I see friends – both academics and non-academics alike – reprimanded like stupid and naive children for joining the wrong cause, and sympathising with the wrong country. They’re belittled for being racist, and told that they probably wouldn’t even like Paris (and the French) anyway if they’ve ever been to France before. Suddenly, criticisms shift from media institutions and their biased coverage to how individuals choose to express their grief, and show solidarity.
I’m not interested in taking sides. Terror knows no boundaries, and I believe everyone expresses horror and grief differently. So whether they’re showing grief over Paris, Beirut, Turkey, Venezuela, Kenya or Japan, they should be allowed to do so without anyone else condescendingly telling them that they’re not doing activism “right”. Maybe stop pointing fingers and start engaging with people to talk about these atrocities happening around the world instead – how’s that for a start?
I confess I didn’t hear about Beirut until after the Paris bombings. I hadn’t even read the papers on Friday, and I only got a text from my mum (who’s in London visiting my brother) telling me about Paris early Saturday morning because she knows I have friends there. And yes, it’s a proximity issue – I’ll admit it, and it’s the same for every frakking person out there. For all the people who’s been shouting about the injustice of it all on social media, that the world only pays attention when a city like Paris is hit, here’s something to think about. I posted about the earthquake in Japan on social media – I barely got an iota of interest. For months, much of Borneo has been enveloped under a layer of unhealthy haze caused by deforestation, causing widespread respiratory diseases – the rainforest in Indonesia is very likely still burning as I’m typing this. And I’ve been posting those news as well, and the very same people whom I’m seeing shouting very loudly now? Barely register an interest. Proximity issue again. Of course, an environmental disaster isn’t as shockingly horrifying as a terrorist attack – there’s no comparison there. But it just feels to me that when you shout loudly and judge how others choose to display their activism, you leave yourself open to scrutiny.
Someone else can equally ask: so where were you in April when the atrocity in Kenya happened? Why were you not shouting about the injustice of the world media then? It’s easier when there’s a comparison now, with Paris. I know for a fact that Paris, for many, remains a romantic ideal. It’s a city many have been, and many others aspire to go to. It’s still one of my favourite cities in the world (and yes, before the condescension starts, I was just in Paris last year), and many of the streets I see on the news are familiar. I was walking those streets with my best friend and her husband last year. I’m sure many feel the same, and that’s why – for me at least – there’s so much outpouring of grief in the aftermath. It’s familiar.
It’s not more deserving of another, and it shouldn’t be. People will generally gravitate towards what they know and are comfortable with; much like I know most people in the West will not care about what happens in East/Southeast Asia because it’s just too far away and too foreign for most to dare to comprehend. A friend was in Venezuela until very recently, and from time to time, I’d hear her account the horrors she witnessed and encountered, but there’s almost a resignation that the world will not pay attention to the plight of the Venezuelans. If anyone, I’d think she has more right than others to feel resentment. My point is, she didn’t go around pointing fingers at those who chose to decorate their Facebook profile pic with a temporary French flag, and telling them they’re doing activism wrong.
So many of the horrors of terrorism occur because someone decided that they’re going to be judge, jury and executioner. Maybe we shouldn’t be playing so easily into those roles as well. Criticise the media institutions for their biased news reporting, rant at them for being discriminatory but stop making individual people, who perhaps, at a loss of what to do, can only grasp what’s conveniently available to them. Don’t condescendingly tell them they’re wrong to only care about Paris and not Beirut; don’t assume they’ve never been to Paris, and if they had, they’d probably hate the Parisians for being rude anyway (it’s frankly, not up to you to decide). My point? Take a step back and take a good look. You’re screaming about Paris and Beirut because it’s valid now, and anti-Islamisation is a problem in the West, but around the world, atrocities are happening all the time. Are you going to be screaming at those too, or telling those people they’re doing it wrong? No, because it’s too far away, and you don’t care because it doesn’t involve relations between the Middle East and the West.