Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Why French flags are fine

Many people have changed their Facebook image to incorporate a French flag, in solidarity with the French nation over the atrocities in Paris last week. I certainly don't think we should be critical of people who haven't - I haven't, for one. There are a number of reasons for not doing so, but one objection that I think is suspect is the kind made in this article by Nathalie Bonney on the Good Housekeeping website.

The broad argument is that to show solidarity with the French this way is parochial. There have been thousands of people killed by terrorists this year, and yet no one is putting up flags of other locations. (Actually, not no one - one of my Facebook friends has made his own Lebanese flag cover for his Facebook photo.)

I have two problems with this complaint. One is that it seems petty to discourage someone from doing something positive for one group because they aren't doing something positive for another. It's a bit like saying 'I would never give any money to Cancer Research because I'm not giving anything to the British Heart Foundation.'

The response from supporters of the objection, I guess, would be that the argument is more nuanced than that. They don't have an issue with showing solidarity with France, but it's not fair that it took an atrocity in France to generate this kind of response from Facebook, and there wasn't an option for previous atrocities.

I would suggest this reflects the false 'small world' impression given by the modern media and many commentators. Because we can see disasters happening anywhere, we think that it is possible to have exactly the same attitude to an event wherever it happens - but that is totally unnatural and if we are honest and not self-deceiving, it is impossible to truly do. The fact is, I will always feel closer to, and more affected by, a disaster in my family than one to someone else who lives down the same street. And I will be more affected by a disaster to someone else in my street than to someone who lives in London. And I will be more effected by a disaster in Paris, a place that I have regularly visited and that has strong cultural ties with the UK than I would by a disaster in the Middle East.

We can't feel the same about everyone and everywhere. This doesn't mean we ignore things outside our own neighbourhood, but it is entirely natural, and should not be a matter for criticism, that we put more weight on events that are closer to home, physically or culturally. To try to feel exactly the same about everybody and everywhere is both inhuman and impractical, leading to a cold, thin porridge of a response. or universal outrage with no focus.

So, while, as it happens, I have not added the French flag myself, I think entirely fine that other people have, and consider the criticisms misjudged and unnecessary.


  1. Thanks Brian, I agree- I have been criticized for changing my profile pic (like it's a big deal! it's only FB!) and personally I feel there is more than a little "white man's guilt" and reverse ant-Western racism involved: noone would mind had we changed to the Beirut flag but not the French...
    This is actually about why FB offered its safety check for Paris but not Beirut- basically it is a fairly new feature that has only been used for natural disasters before, but I imagine it applies to the profil pic also.
    Basically, you can't please everyone- the logic of the argument would be that you can never express empathy with anyone ever, since you will be showing some kind of preference, and absurd position that is itself only applied selectively.

  2. I remember the days after 9-11 here on Long Island, NY. Since our son in law and his brother are FDNY, we were pretty close to the recovery. We knew people that had been lost. We could smell the smoke of the fires on the fourth day following. There was an amazing pulling together in the Northeast, across all the diverse communities, but we had to travel cross country the week after, and I remember being shocked at how many people, including my own father, seemed to be feeling that New York deserved what it got. I don't know how much solidarity was displayed worldwide, but I would expect that there was more support outside our own borders, strangely enough. The only flag I'd want to wave right now is a flag of the earth. Or a flag of our poor species.

    1. I agree, Richard, there was huge support from the UK, for instance. I just don’t think we should criticize people if they do react more to something that is near to them either spatially or culturally (and, to be fair, much of the Western world has quite strong cultural ties to the US).

    2. It would be as if something like that happened in Ohio, and New Yorkers were bashed for wearing buckeyes in support. With everything we have to seriously deal with right now on our little planet, we should all be "whatever gets you through the night" with each other.

  3. My problem with having done this, (wife French remember), is how long is a suitable period of mourning/reflection/sympathy? 1 week, or two; or longer.? And then what ?