Here it comes. The reaction. I mean the reaction now erupting to the displays of the French flag around the world, and the saturation media coverage of the tragedy. Why don’t the papers make as big a fuss about the even worse tragedies that occur almost weekly in other places? Why are we not displaying, on our public buildings and in social media, the Kenyan flag, the Lebanese flag, the Palestinian flag, the flag of every suffering nation on earth? Memes and messages are popping up all over social media smugly declaring that the authors will not display the French flag, not while any other nation suffers unheralded. The writers and re-posters of these memes think these are fine sentiments, and they pat themselves on the back for being morally superior to the rest, because they feel sorrow for all suffering, not just the suffering of people who are culturally close. But these questions are sly and mean, not moral; they are sly because they are questions with self-evident answers, questions that are therefore rhetorical, and therefore political; they are mean, because they are questions that demean the grief we surely all feel for the French. In a few weeks or months, perhaps these questions might be asked, but not now, not while the grief is still hot.
I said the answers to these questions were self-evident. Let me show how. Let’s start with the media. The western media, it is said, ignore the suffering of Middle Eastern and African peoples, and magnify the suffering of westerners. I trained as a journalist, and worked on newspapers, and I could explain this thing called news values, but it shouldn’t be necessary. Media are in business, to make money. Local events have a higher news value than overseas events, meaning they sell more copies, they attract more viewers and listeners. Tragedy is more keenly felt when it falls on people with whom we share beliefs, attitudes, history and culture. Surely that goes without saying. The attacks in New York and Paris carry strong news values, in the cultural sense, because the victims are people like us, people we know. If you look at the media outlets in Africa and the Middle East, you will see the exact reverse taking place. Local events, events that happen to people like the consumers of that media, get the most coverage. And it’s no use berating the media for this, it’s human nature.
Now, the flag business. Why not wave the flag of every nation that suffers? I resent this question most keenly because it implies that my display of the tri-colour belittles the suffering of others, whose flags I am not right now displaying. It implies I value one human life over another. We should feel for the French today. We should wave the French flag, if that is the way we choose to express our grief–or not, if you prefer. But please don’t castigate those who do. There is no end to injustice and suffering and to express proportionate grief for each and every tragedy is not humanly possible. Rightly or wrongly, some events touch us more closely than others. For me, this is one. I’ve sat in those Parisian cafes, strolled those beautiful streets, and felt at home despite all my French amounting to l’addition s’il vous plait. So I wear the tri-colour without shame and without guilt for all the other colours I’m not wearing today.
Do you agree with Cliff?