On the evening of Friday 13th November my friends and I sat in a darkened bar hunched over a phone, pints abandoned, furiously trying to follow the barrage of tweets as news spread across the internet of the atrocities happening in Paris. In the dawn of Saturday morning, as the death toll continued to rise, we all felt the grief of the people in Paris.
In the days that followed Facebook became awash with French flags, a remarkable show of solidarity and collectiveness in the wake of horror. But I did not change my profile picture to the translucent red, white and blue; in fact the whole thing made me uncomfortable.
Since November 12th terrorist attacks have been carried out by ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram in Mali, Lebanon, Iraq, Cameroon, Nigeria and France. I have seen no green, red and yellow for the people of Mali, no red, white and black for the people of Iraq. There has been no translucent filter for the scores of people who have died in European waters fleeing the crisis. There is an unconscious Eurocentric bias at play. The speed at which the French flag dominated the internet is a reminder that, in the West, some lives are deemed more important than others.
The internet can be a fantastic tool, one which is borderless, boundary-less and allows us to communicate with our global community. The #PorteOuverte hashtag was a fantastic demonstration of unity as Parisians opened their doors for anyone stranded and seeking shelter. It was a beautiful symbol of humanity that combated the barbaric acts of the previous hours.
Laying a filter over your profile picture did not offer any functional support, it did not provide anything or help anyone affected by the attacks, but we use these small gestures all the time to show respect. If nothing else perhaps it provided comfort to the people of Paris that the world was mourning with them. But if we are going to choose a symbol to plaster over Facebook to show global unity, perhaps we should choose a symbol which is inclusive. One that does not work on a system of hierarchy suggesting that the people of Beirut are less deserving.
To me, the French flag does not represent the people of Paris. As with the confederate flag or the Saint George’s flag, the use of the French flag has uncomfortable connotations of nationalism. Nationalism which is exclusive, ostracising and perpetuating the notion of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. Many users jump onto the bandwagon of ‘slacktivism’, sharing and hash-tagging without stopping to think what the image they are circulating is really representing. Surely showing support for the French flag will transform into showing support for French military operations against ISIS and Syria, and the actions of the French government: an act now which may be regrettable later. Solidarity should not be a trend.
Two weeks have passed and slowly the French flags have disappeared. The fad is over. A suggestion that people have not forgotten, but are moving on. I still stand with the people of Paris, but I also stand with people all over the world affected by terrorism. I stand with the people fleeing their homes, with the people who have lost loved ones and with those who have lost their lives. Find me a symbol which represents them all and I shall share it with pride.