The spectacle of solidarity

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It is worth considering why some tragedies can stake a greater claim on the global imagination than others (column published in The Hindu BLINK weekly supplement, 21 November, 2015)

{A PDF OF THIS COLUMN IS AVAILABLE HERE}

In the spring of 1821, the Bengali reformer Rammohun Roy turned down an invitation to dinner in Calcutta because he was feeling glum. “I am afraid I must be under the necessity of denying myself the pleasure of your society this evening,” he wrote to his host. “My mind is depressed by the late news from Europe.” He had learnt that monarchist forces had squashed a liberal uprising in Naples. “I consider the cause of the Neapolitans as my own, and their enemies as ours,” he explained. “I am obliged to conclude that I shall not live to see liberty universally restored to the nations of Europe and [Asia].”

A very self-serious way to avoid a dinner party, Roy’s note was also an example of the nascent internationalism of his time. It was a powerful and imaginative feat for a Bengali to make “the cause of the Neapolitans” his own, to forge bonds of sympathy and allegiance across borders and oceans. I thought of Roy while scrolling through images of candlelight vigils in Calcutta last week, of 21st-century Indians responding to sad news from Europe in the wake of the Paris attacks.

In our age of instant communication and ubiquitous information — so accelerated since Roy’s time — we have grown accustomed to the spectacle of solidarity. The Empire State Building in New York City, the CST station in Mumbai, the Sydney Opera House, and many other global monuments were illuminated in the colours of the French flag. In solidarity, football matches in Europe observed a moment of silence before kick-off and strains of the Marseillaise played before ice hockey games in the US. Statesmen, business leaders, and celebrities queued up to insist that they “stood in solidarity” with the people of France.

The problem with solidarity is that while these sorts of gestures are invariably noble, they are also rather easy. For sentient people, it should be the minimum response. There is a numbing routine to the expression of solidarity in the internet age, its swift generation of memes and hashtags, how quickly it allows the personal a share of the universal. In the early 19th century, Roy’s solidarity with the Neapolitans was ambitious, original, and somewhat implausible. Today, it is right to mourn the victims of the Paris attacks, but mourning them is also inescapable.

I find global solidarity more revealing in its absence than in its manifestation. Many observers have noted the different reactions to attacks in Paris and Beirut. The day before the ISIS bloodbath in France, ISIS bombings in Beirut killed over 40 people. Nobody in the West (or in India, for that matter) played the Lebanese national anthem in sporting stadia, or lit up their buildings with the design of Lebanon’s cedar flag. Journalists speculated about the considerable psychological trauma endured by the people of Paris, its doctors, security personnel, and civilian survivors. That same human concern is rarely extended to terrorised people outside the West.

Of course, a few recent exceptions come to mind; the world recoiled in disgust at the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria and at the Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. But that outrage was tempered by a kind of resignation, and soon fell away from Western media attention. In India, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai were followed closely around the world, in part because they were at the time (and still are) frequently described as attacks on “Western” targets within the city.

The carnage in Paris was barbaric and deeply upsetting, but it’s worth considering why some tragedies can stake a greater claim on the global imagination than others.

At a mundane level, the cause is logistical. With the engine of global media still largely hooked to the West, it is inevitable that tragic events in Paris hit closer to home than those in Beirut or Karachi or Mogadishu. There is also an unfortunate racial and cultural dimension to the response, the sense in the West that the victims in Paris “were like us” — a disappointing refrain in the coverage of the attacks — and implicitly worthier of attention and emotion.

But the main reason for this deficit is a great division in the imagining of the world. Violence and chaos are the preserve of other places. Terrible things happen “over there,” but not here. Paris shocks and appals because it pierces the border between separate worlds, making foreign horror native.

This tendency can be seen at a smaller scale within countries. Consider, for example, the remove with which Indians respond to violence in the Northeast, or how Americans can turn a blind-eye to the routine deaths of black and Latino men in the inner cities. That disinterest is a measure of how incomplete the “we” of a society is, of how the imagined broad collective is not really broad at all. To paraphrase George Orwell, we’re all human, but some of us are more human than others.

Atrocities have a way of kindling the gentler qualities in all of us, of conjuring, however briefly, a sense of huge community. What’s sad about these warm displays of global, human spirit is that they remind us of how there is no truly universal “we” at the heart of the “international community,” that we remain imperfectly global. The West retains a disproportionate claim to universality, and it was ever thus. Roy may have mourned the lost cause of the Neapolitans, but how many Neapolitans ever cared about him?

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