Of all of the anxieties social media has created, perhaps the most invidious is that which impels each and every one of us to share an opinion, any opinion, on the big news stories of the day.
In an age when we have all become directors of our very own micro-media empires, the fear of not being seen to have something to say about things that matter routinely drives us to our keyboards in a cold sweat, to fill in with minimal diligence and maximum speed and brevity those tyrannical blanks on our Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. ‘What’s on your mind?’ Facebook demands to know. Twitter’s exhortation is the more laid-back ‘What’s happening?’ Facebook is our talking cure, Twitter our coffee shop. Both, crucially, turn the world’s problems into our problems, the solutions into our responsibility – to change our profile pictures and share the approved memes and hashtags, to, as Sam Kriss recently put it, exhibit our ‘one-person morality plays’.
The bullets had scarcely stopped flying in Paris before the pressure was on. There were the profile pictures filtered with le Tricolore or changed to show the user on holiday in Paris; the memes with cartoons by Charlie Hebdo illustrator Joann Sfar or words by Martin Luther King Jr; the condemnations of religious fundamentalism and pleas for tolerance on behalf of the peaceful majority of the world’s Muslims. The counter narrative went hand-in-hand: what about Beirut, we were asked with varying degrees of sanctimoniousness, where Islamic State militants had killed 41 people the day before the Paris attacks? Where was our sympathy for those victims of terror? To jump onto the bandwagon plunging inexorably downhill or join the small but resolute group of dissidents tutting and murmuring as it flies by is one of social media’s basic choices. But it is, in the end, a false choice.
‘What would I post?’ I wondered, as the news from Paris began to sink in. No doubt the question was on a great many minds at the same time, most oblivious to the narcissism – almost obscene, just as Theodor Adorno had posited poetry’s obscenity after Auschwitz – inherent in such a question. Is anybody really so deluded as to think that anything at all turns on their opinion, that anybody’s comprehension of atrocities like Paris (or Beirut) cannot be complete without some unique insight only they can provide? So what was it I wanted to say, what part of me did I want the world to see? The truth is, I didn’t know. I had a hundred different thoughts and feelings, none of which I felt I could adequately distil into those insistent white boxes. And yet the compulsion to say something, anything, drew me to the keyboard like a weary addict. I tapped out ‘The wheel turns. #Paris’ and walked away. There. I’d done it. Was I happy now?
It must be an odd sort of satisfaction – to watch, from a distance of some 15,000 kilometres, the senseless murder of 150 innocent people and feel as though you’ve hit upon just the right thing to say and just the right means with which to say it. I don’t begrudge anyone their say or their certainty. I envy it. But envy and fear go hand in hand, and my fear is this: that in our rush to speak, our duty to think – and to sympathise with victims everywhere without the imposition of piety or politics – will be trampled. We may say that X caused Paris, that if only we’d done Y it would never have happened. But with François Hollande ominously pledging a ‘merciless’ response, we should be slow to speak – if we are to speak at all – in the undoubting language of politicians and extremists.
Let us speak neither as leaders nor followers but, as Camus entreated us, as friends who walk beside one another. Because it’s not about you or me, it’s about all of us – about acknowledging a shared humanity in evermore dangerously inhumane times. That’s something – maybe, in fact, the only thing – that should be on all our minds as the victims of unbending ideologies of every stripe once again fill the body bags of the world.