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Don't call it slacktivism — public grief is an important human act

So much grief has always been performative. So why do we condemn it now that it’s on Facebook?

A vigil is held for the victims of the Paris attacks outside City Hall in Los Angeles.
A vigil is held for the victims of the Paris attacks outside City Hall in Los Angeles.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I grew up in a tiny town of 750. For the most part, the clichés were true. Everybody really did know everybody else's business, and there were plenty of stifling, confining expectations of how our lives were meant to turn out, with most deviations from the form being looked upon with at least mild suspicion.

But there were times when that town was the best place on Earth. Like in the wake of an unexpected tragedy — when a child died before a parent, say, or when trying to save lives after a horrible car accident left many of the emergency responders devastated. In those times, the entire population mobilized to make sure those who had died were properly mourned, that their families felt properly cared for and loved.

It was easy to be a little cynical about this. If I knew the person who had passed, even somewhat, I could feel relatively pure in the sadness I felt. But what about all the other people who grieved openly and turned out for the funeral and comforted those who'd been closest to the deceased — where did they get off? What made this experience one for them to share in?

What I understand now is that to some degree, we weren't mourning in any concrete, specific way. We were making ourselves available the only way we knew how, through a kind of performance of grief, a way of saying, "We are here, and we know you are in pain, even if we can't understand it."

For decades, this has been the way things are in the small towns that dot the country, the little clusters of lights just off the highway in between major cities. People come together as if attracted by some kind of nucleic force, feeling emotions collectively and doing their best to look properly joyful or bereaved or whatever the occasion calls for.

I've long thought of this response as a sort of group consciousness. One person might feel something intensely, and then it ripples outward through everybody else, until even those at the very edges feel its dull echoes.

In the age of the internet, this phenomenon has gone global.

The five stages of internet grief

If you were anywhere near the internet in the days after the devastating, horrific Paris attacks, you likely saw several of the following:

  • Your friends changing their Facebook profile pictures to feature a French flag filter, all the better to display their grave sadness over what had happened.
  • Other people snarking about "slacktivism," and insisting that the internet has killed meaningful political interaction in favor of easy platitudes and quickly adopted rhetoric.
  • Still other people explaining why being so affected with what happened in France ignored the other huge tragedies that occurred in the same week, like the bombings in Beirut. (For more on this, read this excellent piece by Vox's Max Fisher.)
  • Still others looking for ways to transform the discussion into a series of "teachable moments" that mostly functioned as political propaganda.
  • And finally, still others who sighed about how it was pointless to care too much about any of this, because this is the way of things.

Throughout the 24 hours following the attacks, I saw this cycle repeat itself endlessly, and as the week has worn on, it seems to have only sped up.

On the one hand, I understand the need for this cycle. In the aftermath of major world events, the nature of the internet has the unfortunate effect of shifting focus to the person who's posting about those major world events. Participating in social media is an exercise in posturing where we all try to seem like the best possible versions of ourselves, and there's little room for authentic expressions of sadness or horror. But however clumsy the resulting reactions might be, I can never quite understand the need to shame them. They're driven, after all, by compassion.

And we don't have to resort to shame to achieve other desired ends. Forcing Americans to think about news that happens outside of the US or Western Europe is great. It's a promising step forward that we're at least grappling with the gigantic global problem of Syrian refugees. These issues deserve more attention, and even if they've received that attention in a horrible fashion, it's not a bad thing that we're talking about them.

If the internet is one large community where we're all sending out little waves of our own grief, then these discussion points are attempts to expand that community, to turn a bombing in Beirut from distant background noise into something that horrifies us just as much as an attack in Paris. Americans have traditionally been lousy at this, but if the faint silver lining of the attacks in both cities is that we take a few steps in the right direction, terrific.

Yet I'm not convinced by the argument that changing your Facebook profile picture to say you stand with the people of France somehow suggests you're not standing with the people of Beirut, or that you deserve the dreaded label of "slacktivist" (a word I've come to hate for how it glibly dismisses people's very real feelings). Grief, like so many other emotions, can hit us unexpectedly, in unpredictable ways, and the manner in which we express it can be just as unexpected and unpredictable. We've all grieved. We should all know this. But we keep admonishing each other for it.

People are social animals. We process our experiences by pulling our voices together into a collective shout to see if anybody's listening. And in the age of the internet, a lot of that happens online. So when we question others' motivations for doing this, we're not helping anything. Instead, we're practicing our own form of smug internet performance art.

We won't make the world a better place by shaming our friends

Nearly every day, I see somebody in my Twitter feed retweet a notice about a missing cat or dog, in hopes that someone who can help will see that message and reunite the owner with their beloved pet. This is a nice thing to do! But it's also a lazy, signal-boosting measure that requires literally the least possible effort, which makes it easy to condemn with the typical anti-slacktivism argument: If we really cared, we'd be out with the owner, looking for the lost animal.

Of course, the thought of actually scolding this behavior is ridiculous. The stakes of finding a missing pet are far lower than the stakes of major world tragedies. Nobody would mock someone for retweeting a lost dog notice, because that's a roughly appropriate level of response for that particular crisis.

But the impulse that animates both putting a French flag filter over your Facebook profile picture and retweeting a missive about a lost dog is roughly the same: "I hear you're hurting. I know something's gone wrong. How can I help?" And that reaction is both the most human thing anybody can do and the greatest repudiation of terrorism that ordinary people can mount, and on a worldwide scale.

It would be nice to live in a better world, one in which we were all consistently tuned into the horrible tragedies that happen on both macro and micro levels. It would be nice to live in a world where bombs going off anywhere merited the kind of outpouring of grief we saw in the wake of the Paris attacks. Hopefully, some of the current discussion about social media activism and what really matters can help us achieve such a world.

But the imperfect one we currently inhabit isn't somehow lessened by a sea of French flag Facebook profile pictures, or by people suddenly paying attention to world events because they have an easier time picturing Paris in their heads than Beirut. We can certainly use this opportunity to spark discussion and to educate, but when we see people trying to help, no matter how minor the fashion, it shouldn't invite our derision. An earnest attempt to empathize should always be greeted with open arms, no matter how silly it might seem.

We are, all of us, always dealing with our own stuff — issues and situations and events that seem monumentally important to us but likely don't matter very much to those around us. If we're lucky, we'll feel the kind of world-shifting grief that's part of being human only a couple of times in our lives. And when we do, we'll hopefully be comforted by others, people who don't feel the same devastation we do but simply want to be there to help.

Feeling the ripples and echoes of others' grief and elation and then trying to help or join in however we can is the least we can do, no matter how predictable or seemingly ineffective it might be. It's not diminishing catastrophe. It's one of the purest expressions of humanity we can make.

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