“Show your support for the people of Paris by temporarily updating your profile picture with this new template we created,” read the Facebook-sponsored text promoted not 24 hours after last month’s terror attacks in Paris. The social media giant invited users to overlay their profile picture with the blue, white and red colors of the French flag.
Within hours, my Facebook feed became awash in those colors, as well-meaning friends painted their virtual faces in solidarity with #TeamFrance. But what did that solidarity really prove, or mean?
Certainly it’s an uncomfortable truth of our virtual existence that the colors of our profile picture — whether they are all the shades of the rainbow in solidarity with the legalization of gay marriage or the French tricolor — matter very little to anyone, possibly even including ourselves.
As Lulu Nunn wrote in The Independent, “Paint-by-numbers solidarity when it’s foisted on you by one of the most powerful companies in the world is simply not the way to help a traumatized nation in shock after murder.”
But more than that, there is a certain question that rises with the Facebook flag filter: Why did Facebook present the flag filter as an option on behalf of the French, yet it does not do so on behalf of the citizens of other countries plagued by Islamic terror — including, not so hypothetically, Israel?
I’m an identifying Jew who counts among my friends Jewish clergy, members of the media, educators and writers. I have many people in my feed who convey their solidarity with the people of Israel on a near-daily basis. And yet it is incredibly rare that I see a non-Jewish person in my feed posting anything along the lines of “My God — that’s horrible” in the wake of the most recent stabbing, shooting or car-ramming terror attack in Israel, even when it’s particularly unconscionable
It got me wondering why some acts of terror are deemed “worse” than others? Is it the body count? Is it the picturesque setting in which they are conducted? Whose blood, as the sages would ask, is redder?
“It’s a dismaying and damaging truth that Westerners care about and empathize with images of white-skinned women grieving in Topshop bobble hats far more than brown-skinned women grieving in niqabs, and, when you lend your voice to Euro-centric campaigns such as Facebook’s flag filter, you exacerbate this,” Nunn wrote in her piece. “When we buy into such easy corporate public mourning, we uphold white supremacy. We’re essentially saying that white, Western lives matter more than others.”
Regardless, painting our faces in whatever colors is never an acceptable stand-in for discourse and debate — though it seems to naturally follow for a generation that believes that an emoji is enough to convey an emotion. Reducing ideas and ideology to the lowest common denominator, history shows us, doesn’t end well. We have all the tools available to us to conduct a powerful, international conversation — it’s not enough just to use it to paint on walls.
Jordana Horn is a contributing editor to Kveller. She is a journalist, lawyer and former New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.