The second terror attack to strike Europe in less than six months calls for consumers of Western media to examine how we react to acts of terror in the West as compared to the rest of the world, and to assess how we rationalize our acute indifference to those who are different.
As Paris and Brussels recovered from the reckless violence imposed on them, many chastised Western media for not reporting on attacks of a similar nature in the Middle East, crying bias. But purportedly “objective” Western media is inherently biased. This is undeniable. Editors must make choices on what stories to cover based on what will be most appealing to their audiences. Such is the nature of the market society we live in. This does not mean that news outlets do not care about tragedies that occur in the rest of the world — the media initially extensively covered Beirut, Baghdad and Ankara. Western media attention faded away from these events as audience interest waned (or, in some cases, never really arose).
As audience members, we play a huge role in this process of selection. The rise of social media means that we now actively play a role in dictating what we think is important to learn more about by sharing and commenting on news pieces online. Our reactions to stories are what shapes how major Western media platforms continue to cover events, and agglomerations of those reactions direct the shape and prejudices of Western media as a whole. While Western media does have biases, these biases are a reflection of our greater societal prejudices. We as an audience chose to ignore the tragedies of Beirut, Ankara and Baghdad until we could exploit them for our own selfish gain, manifested as the most unsettling reaction to these acts of terror — the rise of the “tragedy hipster.”
They live and post among us, masquerading as noble, righteous and morally superior. They silence the feelings of grief and compassion of those who are affected by tragedies in the West in order to improve their own social media standing by seeming more worldly, informed or compassionate about events in other parts of the world that did not receive comparable levels of media coverage. Tragedy hipsters are people who grieve for the tragedies “you probably haven’t heard of.”
Having access to social media itself is privilege, one that affords us the opportunity to influence and shape the way that our media landscape develops. It allows a democratic participation in how events are highlighted, and means that we as a whole are now the media. What tragedy hipsters do not realize is that by shaming group sentiment towards a certain event is denying the power of one of the greatest effects of social media: community influence.
Silencing the grief and empathy of those mourning the attacks in Paris or Brussels is selfish and opportunistic. Mourning is a selfless act where one stops what they are doing to pay tribute to those who are no longer with us. Showing solidarity with people who are mourning is a valid way to process the shock and horror of an act of terror.
After Paris, countless people around the world showed solidarity with the French by changing their profile picture to the tricolored flag captioned #PrayforParis, extending their sympathies to people targeted by the attacks. On social media, I saw many people express intense anger toward people who adopted this profile picture, instead calling for the adoption of a more universal and all-encompassing #PrayfortheWorld. While clearly Facebook’s creation of a profile filter for Paris before anywhere else was Eurocentric, to immediately call for #PrayfortheWorld is frighteningly similar to the rhetoric of people who call for #AllLivesMatter in the face of systemic racial injustice in America. Yes, there are tragedies all over the globe. Yes, we should care about them. And yes, we should pray for all of the tragedies happening in the world. But that is beside the point. Paris was a city reeling from a horrible act of terror unlike any seen in recent memory in the West. If people feel a connection with the Parisians, they should be allowed to grieve for them and demonstrate solidarity however they please, without feeling shamed by their peers.
Of course, not everyone who highlights tragedies happening around the world is a tragedy hipster. Many people share articles about tragedies happening all over the world in order to build a collective acknowledgement of the bias of Western media and the marginalizing effects that this bias can have. Others are just genuinely well-informed. This sharing and conversation becomes problematic when it attempts to divert attention away from the active suffering of those affected by attacks in the West. Silencing the mourning of people affected by Paris or Brussels and shifting the focus onto shaming others for not showing the same level of solidarity for the people of Beirut or Ankara fundamentally invalidates those who are grieving. We should not attempt to create a hierarchy of tragedy, as people are affected by different tragedies in different ways.
The performative nature of social media only exacerbates this problem. People often construct their social media identity in order to appear far more connected and informed than they really are and only begin to highlight tragedies that did not receive “adequate” media attention in order to momentarily bask in a feeling of superiority and righteousness. The tragedies of the rest of the world were largely ignored by Western audiences until they could exploit them for their own selfish gain.
The most disheartening aspect of these tragedy hipsters is their hypocrisy. Despite the “holier-than-thou” attitude that they embody when a tragedy strikes the West, tragedy hipsters remain remarkably silent during the moments when tragedies are unfolding in the rest of the world. I came to recognize how acute this hypocrisy was after my hometown was shaken by a horrendous terrorist attack on Easter Sunday. In Lahore, Pakistan, over 70 civilians were murdered by a suicide attack executed by an ISIS-affiliated group. In light of the recent outrage on social media over the lack of coverage of Ankara as compared to the Brussels attacks, I expectantly waited for my social media feeds to fill with posts about the Lahore attack. It was, after all, above-the-fold news in The New York Times, extensively covered by every major Western media source and was the top trending news item on Facebook. Yet my newsfeed (Pakistanis excluded) remained devoid of people concerned about Lahore. It was remarkable. People continued to post about their outrage over the lack of media coverage of Ankara as they overtly neglected to pay attention to the media coverage of Lahore. As cynical as it seems to say, I am certain that the next attack to strike the West will be punctuated with a rise of tragedy hipsters highlighting the “lack of media reporting” on Lahore.
Tragedies of mass violence, both in the West and around the world, are important for people to learn more about. They represent a changing world that should not be defined by territorial boundaries when it comes to extension of sympathy. We as an audience should reflect on how we react to acts of reckless and unjustifiable violence all over the world and not prioritize which tragedies people should focus on.
Do we really care about the deaths of people everywhere equally? No. But we should. And until we do, we should not shame people who do show compassion and respect for those who have lost their lives to incomprehensible savagery.
Kara Alam is a junior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. She can be reached at [email protected]