A few days ago when a friend put up a link about the Boko Haram massacre in Baga, in north-eastern Nigeria, two people commented on it. One said, "I demand a he suis Nigeria card" and the other, "This man lives up to his name!"
It's great that people are using social media to voice their opinions and express solidarity with causes they identify with. However, this right here, in one post, is the perfect example of what's wrong with the sound surrounding all the crucial world events these days.
What's the point in your view?
The first comment was made in such a hurry that the person misspelled "je" and didn't even bother using Facebook's handy "edit comment" tool. The desire to get in and make a comment, to be among the first to voice an opinion, is a plague on social commentary.
We do not invest time in informing ourselves about the matters at hand before - in this case, equating the response to two different events. In the days of social media, everyone is an influencer - you, me and my neighbour, we all have a little pool of people whose opinion we shape by our comments and uninformed opinion. At its worst, this can lead to a spiral of dumbing-down public opinion.
The what-aboutery displayed by commenter number one is a familiar virus that has infected large portions of the online population particularly. This virus leads people to a) make quick shallow comments b) evade the point at hand and c) appear informed ("see! I know about this other stuff"). While the world is debating whether Je Suis Charlie is an appropriate response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the nuances of what that could imply, the what-abouters have moved on to "but then why don't you proclaim your solidarity with Nigeria"?
Going by this logic, why don't we proclaim our solidarity with the victims of ethnic cleansing in the Central African Republic? Why go so far, what about the apparent ethnic cleansing in Pakistan? Why don't we put up signs of solidarity with the Kabir Kala Manch songwriters, in jail for singing provocative songs, here in India? What-abouters question your stance on things without having to have one of their own. The only possible answer to what-aboutery is that one stops protesting against any injustice because one cannot possibly protest against all the injustices occurring across the world at once. It is nothing but yet another way of silencing the sound around an issue.
This may not always be a bad thing
Take the second opinion, for instance. I would laugh if it wasn't so frustrating that commenter number two on this post did not bother to read the first line of the posted link before denouncing the murderous man, Boko Haram, who has single-handedly killed 2,000 people. It is a good thing the headline of the article did not mention Baga, else they might have declared an emergency in Goa. The post itself is a kind of manifestation of what-aboutery. I find it problematic that almost all such commentary is prefixed by words such as "Meanwhile…" and "While you are busy defending free speech" and so on. Of course, we rise to defend and protest about causes that resonate more with us (when the same Boko Haram kidnapped school girls, Twitter was abuzz with hashtags) but does that make our protests less worthy? Should I be made to feel guilty about the causes I choose to defend because you have other valid objections with the world?
Who's stopping to think?
As soon as a tragic world event occurs, the burden of having an opinion descends upon us like a fog. If you don't take a side, then your friends, by which I mean the 500 people who follow you on Twitter, decide that you're either a) on the other side or b) too dumb to have an opinion. The pressure of taking a side before we can actually understand both sides makes the reasonable among us go for the more attractive side. How many of us have stopped to think before putting up Je Suis Charlie as our Facebook status update? Wait, how many of us understand French? No wait, how many of us even knew what Charlie Hebdo was before January 7, 2015? Do some of us think Charlie Hebdo was a man who got killed for making cartoons?
And then, is it wrong to declare Je Suis Charlie if you didn't know of Charlie Hebdo before the murders? Where, if there should be one, is the line between free expression and expression of hate? How can the non-French speaking population that is commenting on the incident hope to understand the context and nuances of the cartoons? Was it racist or was it equal opportunity? Did everyone who pronounced Charlie Hebdo racist go through their archives to check whether, in fact, they mostly targeted the already marginalised French Muslim community?
These are just some of the questions that too many people are not asking.
Within minutes of the Je Suis Charlie hashtag gaining popularity on Twitter, several of my Indian friends and fellow journalists had declared themselves "Charlie". Then, some people started questioning this stand, calling Charlie "racist". No one, mercifully, wants to be a racist. Within minutes of these accusations, people started deleting their FB posts that had earlier proclaimed they were Charlie, while on Twitter someone started a Je Suis Ahmed hashtag. Ahmed, the Muslim cop who got killed while trying to protect the Charlie Hebdo staff. Almost instantly, a large number of Charlies were now Ahmeds, utterly mystifying those who were still trying to understand the situation.
Public solidarity is a great thing and, perhaps, the only way to slowly change the things that are wrong with our society. If the reported figures are correct, then 50 per cent - half of Paris - was out there sending out a message to the world. There was no ambiguity this time: This wasn't a debate on whether Charlie Hebdo was right in printing those cartoons, this was a protest against the ideology that says, "if you offend me, I'll kill you". Paris came out in defence of freedom of expression. The photographs were inspiring; the event made us think: why do we allow our own free speech heroes to be silenced so cheaply? Where are the protest marches defending FoE in India?
So yes, expressing an opinion, making sound, is a great and important thing - as long as we guard against that sound becoming hysterical noise that confuses everyone and drowns out the crux of the matter.