Column: Your symbolic support for Paris is meaningless

A couple is silhouetted against a hotel lit with the colors of the French flag to show solidarity with the victims of last week's attacks in Paris as they look over downtown Kansas City, Mo., Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Maybe it’s the best you can muster. As an active, self-directed and presumably destitute college student, you’re not lining up to donate buckets of money to the families of at least 129 killed in Paris last Friday. You’re not going to contribute to the defeat of ISIS unless you get deployed, and if that happens and the West “wins,” it would be a pyrrhic victory at best, considering how the War on Terror birthed groups like ISIS and will likely spur the same kind of violent alienation that leads to the greater establishment of fundamentalist groups. We’ve seen this before. So, yeah, maybe a temporary profile picture on social media is the only tool in your wheelhouse.

My problem lies with the concept of a commemorative profile picture to keep up with current events. The first time I noticed they were implementing this was after the Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court case, which made gay marriage legal nationwide; people had the option to give their profile pictures a rainbow filter. I didn’t have a problem with it then because gay people should be allowed to marry each other and this was a milestone for many in the gay community.

Conversely, though I acknowledge the decision to alter one’s picture with a filter resembling the French flag is derived from a show of solidarity (however questionable it may be) with an allied country, I think it’s tacky to have a temporary profile picture in the wake of a brutal terrorist attack. It’s bad that Facebook encourages it, and it’s worse we willfully submit to it without understanding how gross it actually is. At the end of the day, it’s a trend.

After you log in, the masthead of yours news feed asks if you would like to make the French flag filter your “temporary profile picture.” Now, think about the implication of the word “temporary.” After a select number of days – you set a timer for however long it takes for you to “mourn” the tragedy – your pledge to support France through this lens will wear thin, and you will instead graduate to a more narcissistic picture of you and your family being fat on Thanksgiving or something.

By going into it recognizing the picture is temporary, you tacitly concede this event is ephemeral and thus, easily replaced. We condition ourselves to catastrophe because we know it’s going to happen again, and if there’s, say, a new 9/11-esque attack, then I’d make a hearty wager Mark Zuckerburg and company will have an “I Heart New York” overlay ready to go.

What this whole exercise effectively says is this: Tragedy is common and perpetual, and now I can “app-ify” my concern in alignment with the ADHD of the tragedy news cycle until a new one comes along to publicly convey my sentiments to. By accepting this, we diminish tragedy as another extension of our embellished online personas.

Moreover, when you offer “your thoughts and prayers to all the victims,” it may stem from a well-intentioned place, but even the Dalai Lama thinks the issue can’t be solved by prayers. He says, “Humans have created this problem (of terrorism), and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, ‘Solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.’” Considering how many places across the world were hit by ISIS last week, I don’t think anybody’s past thoughts and prayers were answered, unfortunately.

The obvious lack of efficacy in praying leads me to deduce that people publicizing these displays of compassion on social media do it for the same reason they do everything else within that forum: to project themselves in the light they perceive most desirable. This behavior is probably subconscious now, considering how ingrained social media is in our lives.

France is in a time of mourning, and despite all my cynicism, I don’t think it’s wrong to want to be supportive. Just consider the implications of your “supportive” actions, however trivial they may seem, and whether you’re actually helping. And understand that while Paris is a Western ally, terrible things occurred in Beirut and elsewhere last Thursday at the hands of the same psychopaths, but readers expressed significantly less interest in it because it wasn’t perceived as a Western problem. The best thing one can do to be supportive is to educate oneself on the issue of ISIS and think rationally about the group and its intentions; there is plenty of media available on the subject.


Stephen Friedland is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at stephen.friedland@uconn.edu.