Thursday, November 19, 2015

Public displays of sympathy in the age of social media

We constantly dress to signal our relationship to the world around us. We dress up  for respect, we dress down for solidarity. We check the dress code before going to an event, and we try to aim for the point that hits just right, or at least in the ball-park without being embarassing. To signal beyond this we wear pins, buttons, badges, ribbons and all kind of more or less subtle symbols for others to recognize. Sometimes this is done just to avoid embarassment, or to show some kind of conventional connection. At other times it's done out of deep sympathy and respect. You wear your best to your friend's wedding. You wear black for the funeral. Don't mix those up unless you really want to send an oppositional signal.

So why are we so critical of people dressing up their avatars for this kind of signal? The reactions to the tricolor used after the attacks in Paris November 13th are harsh. They attack the people who change their profile picture for a while, then move on. Some are angry that nobody wore the Lebanese flag after the tragedy in Beirut.  Some claim it is to show support to a nationalist system that just increases the tension and maintains the terror. Some just rage against the fashion of wearing random symbols, only to forget the cause the next week.

True, all true. But what is the right dress code when you are grieving the horror of such a brutal attack on a place that is close to your heart? If I was to go to a funeral, I'd wear black, offer my condolences and walk home to change, and nobody would complain. The people at the wedding in the church 30 minutes later, already gathering in their dresses and finery wouldn't complain that we aren't celebrating their happiness. And I would certainly not demand that they dress in black. They are dressing for their life, I am dressing for mine.

So why does Facebook avatars affect us so strongly that it's necessary to write about how false the expression is, or be jealous about the lack of sympathy for others? Is it a kind of selfish grief, a stage of anger and self-absorption that insists that there is only one important feeling, only one right way to feel it, only your struggle is true? Other attacks on expressions of sympathy indicate this may be so, the anger of seeing a ribbon supporting the sufferers of an illness that is crippling you and your family, the signs of awareness from the unaffected and healthy apparently mocking you with their presence - I am not linking because I don't want to point to any one personal cause, I am sure you have seen this yourself. They are the blogposts or tweets accusing others of being false, not knowing, not understanding, because you own pain is so deep, your own burden so heavy.

So what should we do? Wear jeans to both the funeral and the wedding? Never change the profile picture at any one time? Buy no ribbons, have no feelings but those approved by the blogosphere, the twitterati and the Facebook sharers? I don't think you mean that. Not if we are face to face. Who ever you are, who have been so annoyed with all those avatars suddenly changing that you need to lash out in your own grief, you don't really mean that I should not be permitted to express mine. You just want to hurt somebody, because you are hurting too. You just want to cry with somebody, because you are crying too. And we don't get the right dress code. It's ok. Even if we didn't get it right, we are still here, trying to express something. Some pain. Some joy. Some sympathy. Some support. Some love. Take it, or don't take it. But please accept that the emotions are real at this end too, even if for an afternoon, a week, a lifetime. And we use our avatars like we use our clothes, in an attempt to express something we may be too clumsy to get just right.

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