“In a moment,” they say – the royal “they,” that is – “your whole life can change.” It can. This is despite the idea that change is something many societal observers would deem a slow progression – certainly slower than that of a single moment.
Many lives, however, have changed in several moments in the last few days. In Japan, an earthquake – nature’s reminder of our human limitations. Elsewhere terrorist attacks – Baghdad, Beirut, Paris, etc., – a reminder of our human failings.
You may have only heard of some and not others. Nature is a force with which mankind can only do so much to combat. Terrorism, however, is one of the many violent creations of mankind. Many lives have been put to death in the tragedy of political ideology; lives lost to global terrorist networks. The people they leave behind – their lives are changed forever.
For a small or great time and depending on who you are, and your juxtaposition to these recent incidents – your life may have changed too. Maybe not forever, but at least for a moment in time.
On Thursday, while finally accepting my body would need rest, having somehow managed to get a severe cold, I heard of the bombings in Beirut. Through drowsy medication, I said a small prayer and told myself, “I will examine this tomorrow.”
On Friday morning, I was worse than Thursday so I took the entire day off. I slept for most of the day and woke up in the early evening to texts saying “Wow, Paris.” “I hope everyone you know in Paris is fine.” “What is happening in Paris?” Confused, I checked the news – bombings in Paris.
I contacted family and friends to ensure that everyone was safe. The reality of having a “global family” – the sort of family (and friends) where people live oceans away, and people are always traveling, is that you don’t always know where people are.
In a few hours all but one friend was accounted for. It could have been a nerve-wrecking experience awaiting news but I substituted nervousness for prayer. In my gut I felt she was fine. And she was. Everyone I know was fine.
At 3:50 a.m. Chicago time, she told me she was safe. “Thank God,” I thought. And then I thought about it again. How many are thanking God right now? How many prayed for their loved ones? How many, despite their prayers, have lost someone they love? I do not blame God for the violence of men and women; instead I look to the responses of mankind when their fellow men and women have inflicted violence on each other.
The response to Paris was swift. People were quick to offer outpourings of love and support and solidarity. I noticed. I noticed too that it was less so for Beirut and barely anything for Baghdad. For now, I will not deal with the social and cultural inconsistencies of our responses to different spaces in the world of global terror; there are people far more courageous than I, who have already asked some difficult questions about whose tragedies we respond to and mourn – and whose we don’t.
Moreover, I have not yet fully collected my thoughts, and to reduce some things to immediate reaction and for the sake of brevity, is doing work in a certain kind of “pernicious off-handed manner that is the hallmark of mere opinion.” I borrow my father’s words of defense here which he wrote to me in response to my piece on Mizzou and Yale last week, when a respondent had accused me of falling in the matter of brevity.
Sometimes brevity is not desirable nor really possible in asking, and if possible answering, difficult questions of culture and society. But in thinking of brevity and solidarity, I watched as people around me changed their profile pictures to places in Paris, mostly La tour Eiffel, and later adding Le Tricolor, the French Flag, to their profile pictures.
I will continue to resist the temptation to ask in the moment, why not change your flags and your symbolism to Lebanon too? Or to Palestine? Or to Syria? Or to Kenya? Or to Nigeria? Or to Iraq? Or even to certain symbols of the United States where there are many whose bodies are victims of violence and terrorism.
But I know that not only is this not the time to ask these questions – knowing there will probably never be a good time – but knowing too and perhaps condescendingly, that some of the answers are already known as to the people’s responses, and lack thereof. We will discuss these at a later time. Instead I think there is another question that is pertinent: what is solidarity during the age of social media?
Solidarity is hashtags raising awareness. Solidarity is posting pictures and expressing outrage and concern. Solidarity seems so close. We are no longer sitting in our living rooms, surrounded by friends and family, hovering over the television. Solidarity, it seems, is at our fingertips. And yet somehow, it also feels distant and contrived; maybe even vapid – merely just popular.
I cannot speak or write of people’s intentions and especially in cultural analysis, I rarely, if ever, like to consider intentions at all. I am often asked why. The reason is intentions are entirely subjective and not verifiable. In fact, they are largely unknowable.
What we do know, it seems, is that people wish to express solidarity and our expressions these days can be as brief as the change of the profile picture. In one sense this is good – pronouncing or asserting one’s alignment has become a simple task. In another sense it is bad – because this very pronouncement can lead one to believe that a mere digital expression is where solidarity begins and ends.
“So what should I do?” Some will question when you ask them to think critically about their words and actions during times of high emotion, during times of conflict, during times of pain when solidarity is especially needed. If there is one thing that ought to be clear – it is that silence is the real disaster. It is better to express and to say and do something, than to be crippled by fear, and remain silent.
Silence and not expressing one’s self through the social spaces we utilize however, should not be seen as the same thing – an equal thing. Instead, I think moments such as these require a great deal of reflection and study and consciousness and education, and where possible, tangible support.
I spent most of my Saturday, reading and re-reading article after article on terrorism and the potential consequences of these disasters, and the political and ideological and social questions we need to ask and answer. Certainly questions that are more important than the one I am even asking now: what is solidarity during the age of social media? Yet being part of the new age of people who examine culture and events through the lens of the digital space, I feel it is still an important question to ask, especially now.
Two childhood lessons that follow me throughout my life kept recurring to me this weekend. The first, a religious lesson from The New Testament, Romans 12:21 “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” And secondly my mother’s many recurring utterances throughout my childhood but specifically one, “Charity begins at home. Charity begins at home.” Why did these childlike thoughts permeate my brain during matters of such gravity and complexity that affect the political, social, cultural, and personal lives of so many? By end of day, I understood.
Solidarity is something I am privileged to say my work makes it possible to accomplish in a public space. Expression in the public space can take on many forms – resistance is one of my favorite forms, as is solidarity. But how do we, in our ordinary lives go about the work of solidarity? Because the truth is solidarity is just that – work.
I think firstly, the necessity of educating ourselves on the matter at hand – in this case, terrorism – is of great and immediate importance. The reality is even from an academic standpoint, our understanding of terrorism is limited and largely insufficient. The same is true of our public institutions including the media. Ignorance, in these times, is our greatest enemy.
The work of solidarity, I think, has to be an interruption, perhaps even an inconvenience to our ordinary lives. In the first place, gathering information and education through media and perspectives beyond the places that we live and more easily understand, is the work of solidarity. Challenging ourselves to go to the dark corners of the places we are unfamiliar with, and understanding people we know little about, and indeed through the access of our digital spaces, is the work of solidarity. But there is also something else.
Going back to those childhood lessons, I thought about how doing good where you are, giving support and compassion in the place that you live, to the people who need it most, to the people who you can help, is the work of solidarity for the world. It is the work that many great leaders of peace have long asked us to do – the Blessed Mother Teresa comes to mind. This work, I believe, is how we overcome evil with good – we do the charity we can at home, in order to accomplish the far greater and more difficult task of doing the charity away from home.
Solidarity during the age of social media allows us to see and uplift the humanity of others at the touch of a fingertip. But I do not think it is petulant or unfair in demanding that we do more than make our solidarity social. I think it is only right and just and necessary, to demand that we do solidarity’s difficult tasks, to each, whatever they can, wherever they can.
This work of solidarity too, is how we keep our hope in the world. It is how we keep our perspective from being tainted with the futility of cynicism. It is how we maintain that peace and hope and humanity are always worth working towards. And before there are places that are oceans away from home to do that work – even for those of us who have loved ones separated by these oceans – there is always work to be done at our doorstep. Wherever we find ourselves, let our solidarity get to work.