In the wake of the horrific attacks on Paris an outpouring of grief has been felt around the world. World leaders have condemned the attacks and offered support, news coverage has been continuous and the famous tri-colours have lit up the Sydney Opera House and famous buildings around the world.
Social media has responded with millions of tweets, offers of support, and inspiring images and messages of hope. Facebook profile pictures are being changed to the French flag. Within this collective shock, the point has not been missed that dozens were killed in two suicide bomb attacks in Beirut just a day earlier.
The reaction had not been nearly so strong. Indeed, many of the mourners for Paris were not even aware a similar terrorist attack had devastated a Shia community the previous day. This has led to a phenomenon that can be called grief shaming. Particularly on social media, people who are expressing sympathy for Paris are having their motives questioned. They are shamed for either being ignorant of the wider world or for being tribal Westerners, only caring about nations who resemble their own.
Humans are tribal and it is probably a flaw in our evolution that we are inclined to care more about people who share our cultural and ethnic traits. That said, those who are crusading for equal coverage of Beirut and condemning those who are grieving for Paris are creating an unhelpful binary that classifies people as either monocultural or intercultural. It may be the case for some, but it is unlikely that people who are currently focusing their social media on France are doing so only because they are tribal westerners.
Shock is a powerful but brief emotion. The real tragedy of war-torn nations is that violence and death become the norm and even the most intercultural, wordly people become desensitised. To hear of suicide bombings in the Gaza or IEDs in Iraq or child soldiers committing mass killings in various parts of Africa does not shock rather it compounds the grief in a long-running tragedy.
Even for outward looking global citizens, violence in Beirut does not shock in the same way as Paris because the latter is seen as a generally safe place. This is not tied, or at least not necessarily tied, to racism or prioritising Western suffering. Consider Tokyo and Seoul. Both of these cities have had terrorists attacks and the Western world was stunned. The media coverage and public mourning was comparable to Paris. The Tokyo subway bombing of 1995 and the Air Korea bombing in the lead-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics were before the age of social media. Had the technology existed then, Facebook profiles and twitter feeds would have lit up in a similar manner.
Reasons other than tribal loyalty and a general ignorance of the wider world can explain why some people may be (as far as you can tell from social media) more upset and concerned with Paris than Beirut. I have nothing but respect for those who campaign for peace in the Middle East and those who raise awareness about the ongoing tragedies in many parts of the world.
I would simply encourage people to resist the urge to judge others based on a profile picture and to reduce a noble cause to grief shaming. All lives matter and grieving its violent end is not tribal – it is human.