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Changing Your Profile Picture to a French Flag Is Impotent Performative Grief, But What Else Is There?

News

Changing Your Profile Picture to a French Flag Is Impotent Performative Grief, But What Else Is There?

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On Sunday afternoon, before the game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, the 80,000 in attendance at MetLife stadium, like many others around the country that day, paused for a moment of silence in recognition of the horrific attacks in Paris on Friday night in which 128 people were killed, and hundreds more injured. To commemorate the observance, a color guard was on hand, displaying the French flag in the end zone. It was, much like the Army football team carrying the flag out onto the field for their game on Saturday, and the numerous iconic buildings around the world changing their lighting schemes to the French tricolor, meant as a show of solidarity with the grieving country. A nice gesture, to be sure, although you might not have even noticed it at the time, because, somewhat muddying the message was the simultaneous unfurling of a 100 yard long leviathan of an American flag engulfing the entirety of the rest of the field. Setting aside how it’s recently come to light that these types of displays of muscular jingoism in the NFL and other sports are for sale, the effect here was unintentionally hilarious. You might call it too broad if it were a scripted scathing satire of American politics, this monument of conspicuous overcompensation. Either way, it somehow dampened the sincerity of the occasion.

On the biggest stage of our country’s biggest televised spectacle, it was a telling bit of symbolism, as the policing of sincerity has become its own sport of late. Nowhere has this been more evident than in our efforts to wrestle with the horror and the frustration of the Paris attacks through performative expressions of empathy on social media. By now you’ve likely seen your feed overtaken by a stream of avatars overlaid with the French flag, or people posting photos of themselves in Paris on vacation. Look at me! As is often the case when anything as terrible as this happens —  natural disasters and other attacks —  and we fumble for a means to express our grief, there soon came the backlash. You’re just doing that to get attention, many said. Why is Facebook only offering an option to change your picture to the French flag? others asked.

If you want to change your profile picture to the French flag, as one typical argument from the Independent put it, that’s fine. “I just hope that you also change your profile picture to a different country’s flag every time people are wrongly killed as the result of international conflicts – for example, during the attack on Beirut in Lebanon just the day before.”

Our Western biases here are hard to deny, but that line of thinking quickly became its own class of empty posturing online as well, no less an identity-based flag avatar, but in this case the result of the performance was meant to show off the questioner as an Enlightened Citizen of the World, like in the case of this woman, who’s decision not to change her pictures has somehow become news. 

You can’t win for trying in a situation like this, whether that means trying too little, with a momentary switch of a picture or the sharing of a hashtag, or trying too hard to show everyone that you’re a person who knows how the world really works and cares about the real, authentic things. Stay woke.

In any situation like the one we just saw in Paris, for those of us looking in from the outside, it can be difficult to figure out how we are supposed to act, or if there’s anything we can even do. One feels hopeless and impotent. In other instances of so-called internet slacktivism, where we change our profile pictures to show our support for same sex marriage or Planned Parenthood, the issue at hand seems a lot more manageable than a violent global ideological conflict born out of a part of the world that many of us know very little about. By essentially turning the shopfront of our most visible outward facing expressions of ourselves into an advertisement for a political cause, we can sometimes have a persuasive effect on our community, small though it may be, by showing those around us how many people believe in it. It’s a way of dissecting the world into smaller and smaller pieces in order to better process the overwhelming. But what good is that when the only effect is informing people who already know us that we are against violence, terrorism, and murder? There’s no counter-argument there, aside from the perpetrators of such attacks, who are unlikely to be swayed by such a feeble gesture in the first place.

So why bother doing anything? There may be no real tangible outcome, but it shouldn’t be surprising that this is the way we process world events, through our own concept of identity, be it national, or personal. We are selfish creatures after all. We may roll out a tiny French flag as a gesture in the corner of the football field or the corner of our profile page, but its always in the shadow of the monstrous flag of our own personal identity. A flag, after all, is never anything more than a symbol. It only has as much, or as little meaning, as we read into it.