So another wave of “change your profile picture to show [something]” has erupted over Facebook in the last week. Around half of my current friends list have placed an overlay of the French flag over their profile picture to show solidarity and empathy towards the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris.

I have heard that this is not an uncommon occurrence. The intentions of this are benevolent. What happened in Paris was an atrocity; massacring civilians is always going to be unacceptable, that will never change. Even in 513BC, Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War which stated “what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy; next best is to disrupt his alliances; the next best is to attack his army. The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative.”

Even 2500 years ago people acknowledged that this was wrong, at least strategically. Victims of the attack, whether shell-shocked survivors or grieving friends and family, need to know that the rest of the world stands with them, that we on the outside want to support them any way we can. I am just not sure that changing profile pictures on Facebook is really the best way of achieving this.

The up side of the profile picture change is that it’s fairly easy to do and generally doesn’t require much effort; some people change their profile picture almost weekly, after all. However, this also begs the question: do you really understand what it’s for? Do you really understand what the victims are suffering through in order to fully empathise? Things like this become a trend and start to lose meaning.

As a trainee teacher, I frequently come into contact with teenagers and I’ve overheard conversations between young people that really don’t show a whole lot of understanding as to why people are changing their profile pictures; they do it because everyone else is doing it. It becomes fashionable to do it, so people do it without really considering what the act is supposed to show, as they don’t want to be the one person that’s left out.

Also, losing a loved one, a really close loved one, is an experience that I think a lot of young people have not come into contact with themselves. It’s an experience that you can’t truly understand until you go through it yourself. Even the most stalwart of people can feel a sense of emptiness, of a lasting, incapacitating shock that they could never have seen coming, even if they didn’t feel that they were that close to the person who died; I speak from experience on that.

It also feels a bit, well… wrong. Atrocities are committed all over the globe. I have watched a TV show where North Korean refugees in South Korea literally break down into tears on the air as they ask the population to keep a look out for a loved one that has “gone missing” trying to escape from North Korea. I have read stories of dictators in Africa leaving their population to starve and die of illness so they can extort money from them to line their own pockets. Why should we not make a gesture for every atrocity that happens around the globe? Why should one atrocity close to home trump equally terrible atrocities that happen worldwide on a far more regular basis?

I also feel that the gesture isn’t large enough. I understand that the idea behind it is that it’s a small, easily accomplished gesture that anyone can do, but changing a profile picture requires very little thought. It’s easy to change a profile picture and claim to be feeling empathetic towards those who have suffered in the terrorist attack, but honestly it feels a bit hollow. I know for a fact that if I change my picture to have an overlay of the French flag, I’d be no more or less likely to think about the atrocities committed in France, and I know for a fact that I am far from alone in that regard.

That all being said, I do feel for the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris. Losing a loved one is one thing, but losing one to such senseless violence is doubly tragic. I just don’t feel that I need to change my Facebook profile picture to show this.

 

Lexi Taylor

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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  • I think I can understand what compels people to don the temporary avatars. They want to be seen to be doing something, anything. Much like a certain government, they can’t just stand around and do nothing. And at least compared to bomber drones, the tricolore is relatively harmless.