Je Suis Ankara? Oui. But Campaigning Can’t Stop There.

Hashtags and facebook filters won’t stop global terrorism, but there is value in social media solidarity

allan hennessey clictivism Je Suis je suis ankara je suis charlie Student Activism

A recent Tab article titled ‘Je suis Ankara? Non, merci’ makes a twofold argument that I would like to address.

First, the writer argues ‘Twitter and Facebook don’t reveal anything about Eurocentrism, or racism, or indeed anything’. He goes on to argue that social media as a medium is ‘simply a report of what people find notable’, and this is why ‘not a hashtag was given’ for the death of half a million Iraqi’s. Of course, the fact people don’t find half a million Iraqi deaths ‘notable’ reveals nothing about Eurocentrism.

The article rightly alludes that internet campaigns cannot replace practical initiative, but forgets that the internet does not exist in some techy, isolated sphere totally separate from reality. Social media simultaneously informs and is informed by cultural norms and social structures. Social media does reflect structural inequalities, but also has the faculty to help organise strands of social and psychological life.

There is something to be said for the often superficial nature of clicktivism. Whilst social media spreads awareness, there is a danger that it could simultaneously be belittling of tragedy. There is perhaps an uncomfortable paradox, wherein people’s lives are reduced to a three word hashtag or profile picture by people who haven’t experienced that kind of tragedy, yet equally, the number of ‘thank you’s’ and positive responses the page received, from people who have lived it, would indicate that it’s not so reductive after all.

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I did have private fears that the page could make way for a big old mutual masturbation between clever Cambridge kids, a forum for relatively privileged students to self-congratulate and boast the infinite capacity of their own compassion, without really reaching anyone. But whilst cynics may scorn at the odd Valencia Instagram filter or uber-intellectual caption, what actually came through was a clear message of solidarity. Whilst I definitely don’t think we should pat ourselves on the back or stroke our egos for giving the loss of brown lives our attention, the reaction from Turkey was undeniably touching and evidence that the page served more than facilitate some Cambridge circle jerk.

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Clearly, we should be careful to remember that whilst campaigns like Je Suis Ankara effectively draw attention to structural racism and offer a statement of sympathy and awareness, fighting for equality can’t begin and end with a hashtag, status or selfie. It would be next level narcissistic to assume that the people of Ankara will feel any less pain because they have the selfies and solidarity of cosy European undergraduates, but there is power in paying respect, especially to those largely forgotten by Western media. What’s more, the page currently has over 4500 likes, that’s 4500 people who may not otherwise have considered the people of Ankara or the implications of selective Eurocentric coverage.

How Facebook reacts to terror attacks across the world holds real life societal implications, both as an image and influencer of social attitudes. There is activity in our passivity when we mourn publicly the loss of largely white, European lives and not the loss of black and brown ones further afield.

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I don’t want to tell anyone how to grieve, but I will ask that we reflect on why we grieve the way we do. No, you can’t orchestrate emotion, but you can take a moment to question it critically. It’s true that grief is reactionary, and I do not think it is the fault of any individual how he/she/they feels in the wake of tragedy. However, we must ask why many of us instinctively valued the lives lost in Paris and in Brussels over the lives lost in Ankara, or Nigeria, or Iraq or anywhere else for that matter. I don’t think the individual is racist, (I myself responded differently) but I do think structural racism is at play.

I’m not convinced by arguments that cultural likeness makes one life worth more to us than another, nor am I convinced that historical ties between nation-states leave its members better deserving of our sympathy. And if we want to claim history as our justification, what about colonial/commonwealth ties? Cultural and geographical proximity understandably affect levels of fear, but fear need not impinge on empathy. It might be true that we are desensitized to non-Western deaths, but this is exactly why it is so important that we actively re-sensitize ourselves. Ankara is a topical representative, but the Je suis movement needs (and I trust will) expand outside of Turkish borders. I am Brussels, I am Ankara, I am Istanbul, I am Nigeria, I am Syria, I am Iraq, I am Yemen, I am Libya, I am Afghanistan, I am Egypt, I am with anyone, anywhere suffering at the hands of political violence.

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The article asks where we draw the line, should there be a filter for those dying of AIDS or malnutrition? In doing so, the writer misses the point that the page isn’t just about mourning loss, rather, it crucially seeks to highlight a comparison between the way we treat victims of terrorism in and out of Western circles. This is not to treat all terrorism as homogeneous, nor to necessarily equate the condemnation of the Paris attackers with the condemnation of the Kurdish ones. I neither know enough nor wish to comment on geopolitical tensions between Turkey and the PKK. We can offer the victims the same respect without holding terrorism as a black and white issue.

This need not be a competition of who can reach the very top of the moral high ground or who can mourn the most, but we should actively attempt to unbind the Eurocentric limits of our sympathy and solidarity.

Internet campaigns like Je Suis Ankara are a step towards that.