The Decline of Western Compassion

By Ivana Rihter

Courtesy of Facebook

Courtesy of Facebook

The temporary Facebook profile picture filters give you, a social media user, the opportunity to identify yourself as an ally, a socially conscious member of society, and a practitioner of solidarity with a variety of causes. The core of this phenomenon is deeply problematic because it entirely ignores the complexity of issues surrounding human rights and acts of violence. These filters suggest that these truly complex nuanced issues are binary questions of “with us or against us.” While these filters are capitalizing on the brilliant tendency to express compassion, they do so in a way that is problematic and creates a persona rather than a standard of everyday living.

Solidarity with causes, tragedies and social movements is an absolutely gorgeous thing. I am moved by the empathy and profound human ability to feel so deeply for those suffering, those silenced and those grieving. They may be far from us in distance and in circumstance, but the power of feeling and acting for something larger than yourself is never to be undermined. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I see in the world around me but its practice can be imperfect like anything else. Solidarity in its most basic form is unity between individuals with a common goal. These goals change over time and move in conjunction with social justice causes as the infringement of rights, safety and basic human freedoms continue to be a part of every generation’s struggles. The images of solidarity are something so immediately recognizable that they characterize the struggle of the time. Flowers in gun barrels and nonviolent marches toward armed state troopers evoke the periods of activism from which they emerge.

These images evoke the beauty of standing in solidarity at the time that change was dire, thus making them meaningful and important. They tell the stories of the oppressed, the undermined and the marginalized as a snapshot in a time where that conflict was kinetic. These narratives are indicative of our society’s imperfections and to stand in solidarity with them means a hope for change and empowerment in the future. However, that stand must come at a time when support is relevant rather than reactionary.

Being an ally is solidarity in motion, it is the actions you take supporting the feelings you have. The filters are not an action being taken, they are stagnant. I want to fight the notion that any exposure is good exposure because when you are using your voice to speak for the voiceless, there is a incredible need for sensitivity.   

In our modern world, it has become the most simple action to declare that you care about a cause/candidate/spooky feminist comic book as it is done with a minuscule and thoughtless amount of pressure of a forefinger on the click pad. It should not be as easy to summarize ones stance on a complex global issue as it is to “like” your high school friend's shitty pop punk band. Liking that band’s fan page even though the band sounds like trash to you, is done out of obligation or worry about your social standing and on that kind of issue, ambiguity is fine. But on issues that call into question people’s human rights or the culpability of nations in times of crisis, the implications of your "like" betrays the notion of informed dialogue. This decision, no matter how physically easy for your fat and drunk-with-power human hand, should not be done thoughtlessly. My thesis is this… 

The way you express your solidarity should not be:

   mindless.

   temporary.

   under-researched and under-represented.

   because you think it would make you look like a sick socially conscious activist but you have no actual intention of ever getting involved with a social movement.

   overdramatized.

   disrespectful.

   inaccurate.

   in any way influenced by sponsored social media ‘suggestions’ brought to you by corporations whose job is only to make sure all trending things show up in front of your beady little eyes.

   about you.       

The first appearance occurred when gay marriage was legalized across the nation, a monumental step in a wonderful direction for the LGBTQA+ citizens of this country. The function I have trouble with is that the filters are temporary and can be set as an addition to your trendy profile for 1 hour, 1 week or 1 month. This allows you to choose how long you would like to publicize the support of basic human rights before your profile goes back to normal. Everyone has a right to celebrate in the way they choose, but this does not represent a full reaction of what it meant to a systematically oppressed community since this was only the beginning of a long-fought and messy battle for recognition and rights.

The filters appear much more of an accessory than a stance against oppression, because there is no active role they play other than informing friends and family that people whom are not straight should also be able to do things. Being an ally to the LGBTQA+ community is not an identity to be had or an exciting piece of information that is added to the 160 character bios on social media platforms. Allyship should not exist only in the public eye to be preformed and propagated through saturating your senior year prom photo in the rainbow flag for a week. A recent term that explains this phenomenon is known as ‘ally theatre’ which basically follows the trend in recent years of HUGE social media presence sharing, liking, commenting and declaring allyship as a sort of performance for a reward rather than actual support of the cause or oppressed group because then it becomes a form of theatre.

 Opinions and attempts to speak out in solidarity are inherently valuable because people are having them and expressing them and that is better than an apathetic mass of 20-somethings sharing highly specific and problematic BuzzFeed articles about the “16 types of guys you will throw up near on your vacation to the Florida Keys” or “What sexy handicapped former Olympic athlete are you?” These I have yet to find a stitch of progressive fiber in, but maybe their time will come as I am an optimistic person with a generally open mind. 

Much like the LGBTQA+ social media filters, movements themselves like Black Lives Matter should not be thrown around as a fun, reformist and progressive part of one’s personality. Social justice movements are not accessories to be wielded publicly in order for a persona of tolerance to be complete and active online. Interestingly enough, Facebook has not yet endorsed a temporary profile filter for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of national protests because that would be much more controversial than one in support of a state football team during the championships. These filters must be looked at critically because they are sponsored by Facebook and suggested to the general population in the same breath as the push to like your favorite bands and upload creative cover photos in order to express your authentic self online.

Most recently came the banners of blue, red and white in solidarity with the absolute devastation of the Paris attacks. I followed this horror closely and consumed all the media I could in the form of news updates, personal testimonies and editorial pieces on all the attacks that day. The places targeted were Paris, Beirut, Lebanon, Kenya, and Syria all suffering injuries and fatalities in the most barbaric way to take human life, with fear and unfathomable violence. Sadly, many were unaware of the death tolls in other places because social media took to Paris, not that the coverage was inherently negative, but it left entire countries unrepresented and Facebook followed suit. To disregard any tragedy is inhumane, but to do it in order to remain relevant in pop culture trends is incredibly disrespectful to both the represented and unrepresented sites of horrific loss. This perpetuates only the dominant and most simple narrative, being played to a dumb audience that I don't think is dumb. The option to support anything other than THE story of the day is not present and that is where the immorality stems from. It is inattentive hashtag activism in a deceitfully appealing facade.

There is a better way to support a cause than a 5-day cosmetic change to social media appearance because that is not meaningful or thought-provoking or worth anyone’s time. The filters make these worthwhile causes about the individual rather than a collective working tirelessly against injustice. Causes are not meant to be worn like garments, only taken off after it starts to feel stale. These movements have death tolls and victims and decades of systemic oppression in the soil from which they rise. The impulse is there and good, but the choice that lies is between static or kinetic energy, and how we use all of the human excitement fueling as an insatiable need to uproot injustice in this world.