Je suis Ankara? Non, merci.
Why we shouldn’t be using empty hashtags to show the world we empathise with Turkey
If any of you reading this changed their Facebook profile picture in the wake of the Brussels and Paris attacks, I’m afraid to inform you that you’re a bad person.
Not my opinion, but that of Cambridge’s very own Allan Hennessy, who recently wrote in ‘The Independent’ that ‘if you have used Facebook’s flag feature after the Paris attacks, you are guilty…of Euro-centric mourning.’
The gist of his argument – admittedly phrased with considerable eloquence and flair – is that Britain has shown insufficient mourning regarding the March 13 bombings in Ankara, which killed 37 civilians, and that betrays an implicit assumption that white lives are more important than brown ones. He argues that the most obvious manifestation of this is the lack of a Facebook flag overlay similar to that which was introduced after the Paris attacks last year and the absence of people using the hashtag #JeSuisAnkara in the same way that #JeSuisCharlie and #JeSuisParis.
I disagree. I feel that he’s needlessly ascribed pseudo-racism (he doesn’t use the word, but it’s heavily implied) to something which can be explained much better in terms of human psychology.
Firstly, though, the whole notion of public mourning is in many ways a ridiculous one. All those millions of people who tweeted #JeSuisCharlie in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks – at heart, it was a self-congratulatory way to feel good about themselves. The same holds true for applying a tricoloré overlay to your profile picture on Facebook, or sharing images of a frenchman hugging someone from Belgium.
In fact, the public outpouring of ‘grief’ that follows any tragedy has become almost distasteful in its artificiality. We, as a generation, have been reduced to tweeting banal and vacuous hashtags, and feeling that we’ve ‘done something’ for a cause. The case of #Kony2012 springs to mind. In 2012, the world briefly rose up en masse in indignation at Joseph Kony and his army of child soldiers. Tweets were sent, blogs were written – and then what? Kony was forgotten about by people who felt they’d done their bit by sending a tweet or making a Facebook post.
My point is that Twitter and Facebook don’t reveal anything about Euro-centrism, or racism, or indeed anything. Expressions of grief on those mediums are fundamentally empty and meaningless. I don’t see how starting a #JeSuisAnkara campaign on Twitter will do anything for the family of the victims, or engender any meaningful kind of solidarity between Britain and Turkey. Hennessy is starting a fight over something which isn’t at all important.
But we can go further. I believe that we can be justified in mourning a terrorist attack in Belgium or France more than a terrorist attack in Ankara and that we can do so without succumbing to accusations of Euro-centrism or racism.
At the heart of my argument lies the fact that emotion cannot be confected or forced; it is something that just happens. When my grandfather died, I cried. I don’t cry for the millions of people who die every day, and I suspect that Hennessy doesn’t either. This trivial example demonstrates that we show grief for people we have an emotional kinship with. There is nothing immoral about that, and it’s somewhat redolent of North Korea to force people to show sadness about something which doesn’t affect them.
And you can argue that we do have an emotional kinship with France. They’re our closest neighbours, our strongest allies. We’ve fought two world wars alongside them, and hundreds of thousands of British men lie buried in French soil who died defending France from totalitarian tyranny before. Every British child knows, at least, a few lines of (albeit atrocious) French, and most will have wasted many hours stuck in the back seat of a car on a holiday there.
By contrast, Turkey is an unknown land to most British people. We have very little historically or indeed culturally in common with them, and as such it is very difficult to feel the personal, visceral grief that was felt when Paris was attacked. As I mentioned above, we shouldn’t feel ashamed about mourning personal losses more than abstract ones.
But if we were to be compelled to mourn every tragedy equally, then why stop with Turkey? Why not include those Egyptian policemen killed by IS in a mortar attack on the 19th? Or the worshippers outside a Nigerian mosque blown up on the 16th? And why just limit ourselves to terror attacks? What about the millions who wake up every day in the third world without enough to eat? Or those suffering from AIDS, or malaria, or Ebola? Unless we show equal grief, and busily hashtag away for each of these (and more) we would be guilty of hypocrisy.
As for his argument that ‘half a million Iraqis have died and not a hashtag was given’, it seems that Hennessy has misunderstood the nature of social media. As a medium, it’s not supposed to be an agency for actively ‘doing good’ – it’s simply a report of what people find notable. While he correctly notes the absence of a suitable hashtag, he ignores the fact that far, far more has been spent by Britain (both in terms of military assistance and economic aid) helping the Iraqis than the Parisians. The agency for practical assistance is not Twitter – it’s charities and the government, and I’m confident that they’re certainly helping Turkey out, regardless of the number of hashtags.
So, am I Ankara? No. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel solidarity with the Turkish people, and sympathise with those affected. But I’m not going to use an empty hashtag to ostentatiously show the world this. And I’m not going to pretend that this attack – horrendous though it may be – has affected me in the way the Paris attacks did, for me to do that would be patronising, offensive and a disservice to the victims.
Allan Hennessy is a very good writer and a very clever man – but neither he, nor I, nor anybody else, can tell you how to feel.