Thursday, February 5, 2015

Beware the 'I am' Hashtag

The New Year has barely begun and news of deaths, deaths and more deaths have taken center stage.

The first week of January saw thousands of people in Baga, a village in North-Eastern Nigeria, slaughtered by Boko Haram militants, while in Paris 12 people were massacred at the offices of Charlie Hebdo by terrorists.

In the aftermath of the murders in Paris, several media outlets beamed images to the rest of the world, showing French society marching in support of free speech.

Some marchers carried signs with the words ‘Je Suis Charlie’, while social media profile pictures mirrored the same words. But what does the sentence ‘Je Suis Charlie’ mean? And is it really a by-word for freedom of speech?

The problem with ‘hashtag I am’ activism is that they are largely ineffective and carry with them an air of insincerity, vanity and frivolity. Assuming hashtags were employed in the civil rights movements in the 60s, would they have had any impact on American society? What’s certain is that it would have been easier to lend one’s support for the cause behind a computer than to march down the ferocious streets of Selma. Plus anyone, millions of miles away, could conveniently associate themselves with #IamMLK or #IamRosaParks, without ever having to experience the hostility and deadly threats they and others like them faced on a daily basis.

Incidentally, when Malala Yousafzai was shot in the face, the hashtag ‘IamMalala’ trended ubiquitously. But how can you be Malala if you’ve never had your neck on the line for seeking an education. You’re not Malala if you’ve never had acid thrown in your face while walking to school, or hospitalized after inhaling toxic chemicals at a school targeted by the Taliban. You certainly cannot be Malala if you live in a country where even the thought of educating a girl child is the norm, and not an anomaly.

When we use these ‘I am’ hashtags, there’s a danger of trivializing the issue and diminishing the gravitas it warrants. Instead, it would be more sensible to hashtag the idea underlying the incident. For instance, #JeSuisCharlie would be #IStandforFreeSpeech or #FreeSpeechLives.

Furthermore, a certain level of cautiousness has to be exercised when ‘metonymising’ organisations or people, since we may not know all that they stand for. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical publication that specialized in lampooning politicians, religion and religious figures, for whatever reason wasn’t a widely read magazine prior to the massacre, and so for a throng of people to proclaim they are them now is questionable.

Secondly, Charlie Hebdo, which is now touted as the poster child for freedom of speech, fired Maurice Sinet, a cartoonist, in 2009 for the same idea it claims to espouse. Sinet had written a column suggesting Sarkozy’s son will go far in life for marrying to a Jew and was sacked after he refused to apologize.

Now, Charlie’s decision wouldn’t seem hypocritical if it had deemed the depiction of France’s black female Justice Minister as a monkey equally as offensive.

There’s no doubt some view Charlie Hebdo as bullies for mocking the religion of a perceived marginalized minority in France, with the sole aim of evoking anger. If there was a loftier underlying reason for drawing Mohammed in their cartoons, other than seeking cheap thrills, then said cartoons may have acted as a bridge for discussion rather than a bag of insult on a disaffected community.  

While there’s no denying that the killing of the cartoonists was an egregious and inexcusable act of violence on the part of the terrorists, we should understand that in a civil and free society, a degree of discretion and temperance in speech ought to be exercised for peace to thrive and wounds to heal. We don’t have to agree with or understand the reasoning behind the prohibition of the Prophet Mohammed’s likeness in Islam, or why it’s taboo to present a watch as a gift in Chinese culture, but we can, for the sake of harmony, respect those opinions (as long as no one is oppressed by them).

Much of the world is in discord today largely because people are ignored and disaffected. However, the moment we stop being overly individualistic and narcissistic, and say to one another, “I see you. I hear you. You matter,” that will be the beginning of the end of most, if not all, conflicts.

Lastly, in the face of provocation, let’s remember the words of Aristotle: Anybody can become angry – that’s easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.