Paris is (Literally) Burning…
And what Americans revealed about themselves in the aftermath of the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire
The public outpouring of support across American society (and mirrored on social media) during tremendous tragedies — most recently, the devastating fire that engulfed the Notre-Dame Cathedral on Monday, during Holy Week — tend to have somewhat of a contagious feeling, if not viral. The news gives these disasters top billing and around-the-clock coverage. People from all walks of life have no qualms publicly claiming their shock or profound sadness over these things, whether it’s part of the neighborly exchange of gossip inside the local Mom & Pop shop, or the awkward small talk inside of elevators cramped with big city professionals.
On social media outlets like Facebook, various groups and organizations make it super easy to communicate your support without ever having to utter a word. Which is great for those who are more reserved, or those who have trouble finding the right words. Not too long ago, integrating or changing one’s profile picture on Facebook to a temporary, customized frame or filter intended for specific causes was the standard etiquette for showing solidarity without having to make a lengthy post. This treasured tradition was meaningful to, and used by many people. But for many others, those pesky profile picture frames became a subtle form of peer pressure. And still for others, they were considered hollow gestures that amounted to nothing more than “virtue-signalling.”
Regardless of anyone’s preference, in extremely tough times, these small comforts on social media can even help heal a grieving community. The miraculously helpful crowdfunding efforts like Kickstarter or Go Fund Me assert their presence while also engineering a plan that turns into much needed, actual dollars. Other visible displays of solidarity and support rush through one’s social media feed like the ripples from a pebble in a pond. But, not always. Only sometimes. And only for some people and places. And only under certain conditions.
AFacebook friend of mine — a transgender woman — posted a public status today, revealing her take on the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire. It caught my attention because it was different from all the other shows of solidarity I’d passed while scrolling. Most of them included photos of people standing before the cathedral. Some featured the iconic 295 foot spire in the background, now tragically collapsed in a heap of ash and massive destruction. Others shared their musings or memories with words instead of photographs. By mid-morning I was hard pressed to find a post not referring to this catastrophic event.
My Facebook friend commented that “more people on social media give a shit about a burning building than they do the rights of their friends, family, and even loved ones.” She explained how in her Facebook feed, at least every other post was about “a fire in a foreign country,” yet, she countered, “when the trans military ban went into effect over a week ago, all but (trans) community leaders/members and a few allies suddenly stopped watching the news.”
She relayed how “bathroom bill after bathroom bill, it is the same apathy every time that shows you just how much your average person really cares.”
At first it was jarring to read, even though — as the parent of a trans teen — I knew her conviction to be true. We are too frequently reminded how little people care about issues of the minority groups, and it hurts. A lot. So we find community within our own marginalized or minority communities.
Echoes of her sentiment began popping up elsewhere. Some folks provided names of all the historically black churches and the mosques that have been intentionally burned to the ground in the US and beyond — especially the ones that went vastly unnoticed, or had no support, no Go Fund Me accounts, no accompanying temporary profile picture frames to indicate solidarity across social media.
Others mourned the unarmed, innocent people of color who are killed at alarmingly high rates, typically with no accountability for the officers who kill them, and no justice for the victims’ families. I saw a few folks speaking of the need to show the same solidarity regards to our Indigenous people, who have had their sacred grounds, their homes, and their families torn apart or destroyed with largely no regard from white people.
And then, almost immediately a predictable pattern emerged, one I see an awful lot as a person who writes social commentary. What I noticed was that those who dared speak out today on social media against the perils of privilege (in any form) were consistently tone-policed. They were called “disgusting” for making “a false-equivalency.” Most received scorching “this isn’t the time or place” lectures within the comments — of their own personal posts. Many offended folks seemed almost combative in their approach, arguing along the lines of, “so you’re saying we can’t even grieve how we want to anymore?!”
Some were even publicly unfriended over this. I mean, I know some people get satisfaction from stabbing their finger firmly on the unfriend button, but I’m taking this moment to gently remind folks that Facebook has a handy-dandy “unfollow” option which is super easy to do, and if nothing else, at least spares you from being the victim of the person in question’s angry rants or gross humble-brags, while still preserving the online friendship (and thus — for empaths like me — avoiding awkward in-person situations).
I read all these posts very closely, and nowhere today did I find any evidence that anyone was suggesting we’re no longer allowed to express sadness over the devastating loss of historic relics, holy artifacts, inanimate objects, beautiful culture and artwork, or anything else like that. No one was saying we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, or mourn two things at once. No one was saying the expression of outrage or sadness over social injustice, and the expression of outrage or sadness over the loss of sacred property are mutually exclusive things.
What they were saying was that all the news and social media attention over the loss of (typically) white, Christian, cishet people’s stuff (whether it be their holy sanctuaries, their rights, or their very lives) is disproportionately covered compared to that of others. That if only people could show as much outrage over the various forms of oppression still running rampant in America as they did about this burning building, we might actually make some progress towards the America our Founding Fathers envisioned.
I won’t dispute that “white people sanctuaries” are much more thoroughly attended to, covered, and saturated with overall support when they are destroyed. And when black and brown people’s sanctuaries get destroyed — most often deliberately, purposely, they are targeted and destroyed; it’s not an accident — they still fail to get adequate (if any) coverage or lasting support. Historically black churches being burned to the ground as an act of terrorism by white supremacists in Mississippi, Louisiana, and other places are just a few examples from recent memory.
These posts are not meant to be divisive. They are simply a reminder, a nudge, a call to action, inviting the majority of us to either shift the conversation to where we’re listening, so that we’re able to make things more equitable (or at the very least, acknowledge that the inequities exist). Or, they beg us in not so many words to please stop hogging all the attention; stop inserting our voices into every possible situation; move over and make more room at the table for all. Give up your seat, if you must. Do your part to be kind, especially to those who are already marginalized and never get a seat at the table.
It’s also worth noting that although this (now partly destroyed) Christian relic has sacred, holy meaning to many individuals, it represents something entirely different for others. It probably goes without saying and we don’t need to delve too deeply into the many oppressive symbols that the Catholic church has come to represent to many people the world over: greed, bureaucracy, deception, scandals and sexual abuse cover ups, fear and exploitation, sexism, homophobia, religious wars, and so on. These things speak for themselves.
It’s additionally worth noting, especially since I’m talking about churches and religion, that I happen to be a lifelong Christian, however, I separated from the church institution long ago when I realized they didn’t represent the Jesus whose life I was trying to emulate.
The historical Jesus of my personal religion was a socialist. The Jesus I’d studied cared for “the least of these” and he lambasted many of the church’s cumbersome traditions and empty, hollow rituals. He rebuked social statuses that were directly tied to the church. He spoke against the idolatry of both inanimate objects and people, including government officials. And he just generally disliked anything that got in the way of the most important commandment of them all: to love one another.
Throughout the day, I saw variations of the same conversations all over Facebook. In response to the posts of marginalized or minority people in general — not only my friend’s post about transgender rights — there were almost identical expressions of the same themes. There, I also saw many people who chimed in to calmly explain their point of view as to why the Cathedral fire was so tragic. Several noted that the destruction in Paris is more than just the loss of a building; it’s the destruction of 800 years of history and culture. It’s the crumbling of irreplaceable artwork, talent, and labor. Blood, sweat and tears.
I hear these points. I hear them all. They’re all valid, and certainly everyone has the right to grieve whenever, wherever, and however they see fit. I also see the value in healthy discourse and exchanges like this (at least the ones that didn’t end in name-calling).
But what really bothered me about the original posts — the ones coming from folks whose only crime was expressing their frustration over social injustices — was that over and over again, people who look like me (read: white, cishet) flocked to these posts in attempts to silence, shame, or otherwise berate anyone who was trying to give voice to social injustice. White people condemned black people (or other white people) trying to make a point about racial inequity and the lack of social media solidarity. Cisgender people called trans people “divisive” and “hateful” for voicing their frustration over lack of authentic representation. And so on.
Trans people, people of color, Muslims, and allies of those communities (among others) were not raising their voices today to be insensitive to Parisians (or those who have family and friends there, or those who’ve had life-changing experiences visiting Paris, or people who just love France, or Catholicism, or Cathedrals, or art, or whatever), nor were they making their posts lightly. They weren’t trying to take away or minimize the crumbling of 800 years of irreplaceable, tangible history, culture and beauty. They weren’t trying to be divisive. I wasn’t sure why other folks couldn’t seem to grasp this.
But then again, we have a person filling the role of president who’s a washed up, former television reality show host, B-grade actor and con artist, beauty pageant dressing room lurker, documented racist, and former failed Casino owner/mail order steak salesman (available exclusively at The Sharper Image) among many other failed business enterprises, with numerous corporate bankruptcies and lawsuits. Not to mention, one who’s consistently scoring a grade of “C” or lower on his political report card, so… not many things are making sense lately in general.
Reading through all these posts, it was evident to me that these were frustrated people who simply wanted to be acknowledged and heard. And this couldn’t be more relevant right now, with Trump having recently tweeted a homemade, undeniably divisive and unfair video which overtly merged the image of Rep. Ilhan Omar with the 9/11 attacks, and subliminally, caused susceptible people to be even more likely to double-down on their hatred and intolerance of Muslim Americans.
And though I hear Christians and the conservative right repeatedly stating that they detest being painted with a broad brush, they continue demonizing people like Rep. Omar — who was democratically elected to represent her community — for the vicious, evil attacks of a few extremists on 9/11.
My trans friend — whose post I saw before the others who were echoing her thoughts — wasn’t trying to downplay or take anything away from the Notre-Dame tragedy. We can all acknowledge that this shocking and heartbreaking moment in time signified the crumbling of irreplaceable history, culture, and beauty, while also acknowledging that privilege (in its many forms) is a very real thing that causes both unintentional microaggressions, and larger, devastating harm that often is intentional. We can do both. But for those who think otherwise, I simply offer this viewpoint for consideration:
For the folks on the front lines of Trump’s daily assaults, which make unprecedented use by a President of racism, discrimination, gaslighting, and other psychological manipulation tactics (among other abuses of power), another kind of crumbling occurs: the crumbling of history, culture, beauty, and the very hard-earned (but not fully realized) social progress we’ve made thus far in the United States.
Every time the 45th administration reverses the clock in their attempts to take us backwards in time — to some indiscriminate, bygone era that nobody can seem to identify by name, yet all seem to believe was once “great” — it chips away at the very fabric of our country. It chips away at the most fundamental values and ideals that this country was founded on, the ones our founding fathers meant for us to embrace. Ideals like inclusion, diversity, and a welcoming spirit towards all who yearn for a better, more equal life.
Unlike a fire which takes only moments to devastate and crumble the work of 800 years, more insidiously, the Trumpian, psychologically manipulative, autocratic form of crumbling happens gradually and slowly. It happens while you’re sleeping, while you’re going about your everyday business, while no one even notices. And it continues going unnoticed until all those ideals America strives to embrace and be also end up crumbling away into ash and massive destruction.
People who were calling out privilege were simply trying to bring attention to how unjust it is that across society, and as reflected across social media, Americans immediately responded in solidarity with shock, horror, and sadness over the news of the Cathedral at Notre-Dame. And many jumped to show solidarity by posting their photographs in front of the Cathedral, or by writing memories of their visits.
Many of these same people have trans folks in their lives, perhaps even in their families, yet they persistently remain silent when the Trump administration enacts actual policies that threaten the rights and lives of these people — our own people, our own marginalized and minority communities.
Many people this week looked on the bright side and took comfort in choosing to see the good in humanity — a story featuring a robust community of people who will find a way to rebuild and have a happy ending (God knows, we need one right about now). In other words, many people chose to see the social media displays of solidarity as concrete evidence supporting the principle, “no matter how many miles of ocean separate us, we are all still one people on planet Earth, and we come together in times of need.”
But unfortunately, for many other people who don’t fall into the various privileged majority groups, what this tragic event in Paris reflected back to us was just a very sad commentary on the state of empathy in America today. We may think we’re showing empathy when we tweet “thoughts and prayers” or the like, and it’s certainly fine to do that. But, unless and until we start resisting the temptation to speak and insert ourselves into every conversation, we aren’t showing empathy.
Unless and until we simply choose to actively listen and allow the voices of those who don’t enjoy the full protection of rights that you and I enjoy, we aren’t showing solidarity at all. Unless and until we start showing up and speaking up for the people right here in our own country, who are truly victimized by harmful policies enacted by an impulsive, inexperienced, reckless administration, we really aren’t growing in the realm of empathy at all. We can and we must do better than that.