I originally created this page to write about the difficulties we are facing at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee… then November 13th happened in Paris, so I’m writing about that first.
I am grieving.
Solidarity and its malcontents
Most of my friends know that I am a faculty member in the French program of the university mentioned above. The world of French educators in the United States is a small one… not everyone knows everyone, but there are probably not more than one or two degrees of separation from that. And most everyone in that small world has friends (often in common) who are Parisian, or students who are in Paris, or business connections of some kind in Paris.
So, it wasn’t long after the attacks of Friday the 13th that my social media feed was blowing up with people talking about their proximity to the events in Paris. Someone had eaten at one of the restaurants once, or had a drink in a bar across the street. Someone had gotten his hair cut the day before in a salon that shares a doorway with the Bataclan and that same person’s spouse had two students who were at the concert, neither of whom survived. One friend was in the vicinity of the worst part of the attacks, and no one heard from him for a while, and there was worry… then he showed up home. There was a story of someone having gotten a ride home, one of the many small acts of heroism, where a stranger offers a kindness that on another day would seem odd, almost aggressive, but on that extraordinary day entered into the sphere of possibility.
And so on.
And there was another thread of thought that started to emerge, almost simultaneously. It was the criticism (of the media, of the West, etc.) that similar events in African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries didn’t receive the same outpouring of attention and solidarity. The grief expressed at the Paris tragedies, according to this narrative, was often shallow and unworldly, perhaps tinged with racism or at the very least with notions of white privilege, and most often not very genuine…
And then there was the very sort of superficial mourning that this criticism was targeting: a massive changing of Facebook profile pictures to one with an overlay of the French flag (introducing the specter of nationalism — the deep origin of this very mess); a bunch of new hashtags and image-based memes about how terrorism is bad, or where terrorism comes from, or where it doesn’t come from, or who does or doesn’t do it; fluff pieces about how they were lighting public buildings in cities all over the place; peace signs with a superimposed Eiffel Tower as new profile picture, and — for the most plugged in — an Eiffel Tower peace sign superimposed on a flag of Lebanon.
It isn’t about me
So, personally, all this just made me run away. Words always fail me in times of strong emotion, especially sadness. So I chose to say little to anyone — in person, in social media, on the phone — I just receded into a shell, waiting until these horrid feelings pass (they haven’t passed yet). I didn’t want to get involved in the debate about who should be mourning what. I didn’t want to get caught up in the race to see who was more well-acquainted with the areas of Paris where these atrocities occurred. I certainly didn’t want to do anything to trivialize what had happened… I felt it was best to just say nothing… even though my heart wanted to scream something.
I went to two vigils. The first one was at UW-Milwaukee, where a message of solidarity was read out in English, French and Arabic, directed at victims of terror everywhere (with Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and others all named alongside France), and music in all three languages was played. It was altogether appropriate and fitting for the occasion. It was raining and cold, but people stayed and gave the ceremony its due.
The second vigil was at Milwaukee City Hall, where a replica of the Eiffel Tower had been constructed on the sidewalk, girl scouts distributed cookies and hot chocolate, others distributed miniature French flags and blue, red and white carnations. A group of students from the Milwaukee School of Languages sang La Marseillaise in French, perhaps not fully aware of the terribly warlike and xenophobic message the song’s words send in the present context. Mayor Tom Barrett gave a short speech, in which he also named several other countries as victims of terrorism, and asked that we hold them, as well, in our memory. Then Robin Pluer, our excellent local French chanteuse, sang La Vie en Rose.
At one point during the city ceremony, I was asked to help distribute French flags. As the Chair of the Department of French, Italian and Comparative Literature, I suppose it was the least I could do… but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t allow myself to make this about a flag. I don’t like flags. Any flags. I think they get in the way of thinking. So I gently refused. And I immediately felt guilty for refusing.
“C’mon”, I said to myself, “You could’ve helped out… after all, this isn’t about you. This is about helping people cope with a tragedy.”
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that none of this was about me. I like the Eiffel Tower, but not more than about 100 other things in Paris. I like La Vie en Rose, but not as much as at least 10 other songs by Édith Piaf. No, this wasn’t about me at all.
And that’s ok. None of that has to be about me.
It is about me
So what is it with me talking about Paris?
It’s not a nationalistic thing, or a thing that makes me want anyone to go hunting down Muslims, or refusing them entry into ours or any other country… and it’s not a thing where I feel like Parisian lives are somehow more important (or whiter, or more civilized, or in any way better) than other lives that have been lost to terrorism (or war, or police brutality, or gang violence, etc., etc., etc.)… and it’s not a thing where I want to show other people who also have a kinship with Paris that I have a stronger kinship with it than they do… I really couldn’t care less about that. So those are a few things it’s NOT.
But Paris IS a place that I have lived (for a total of about 2 and a half years, in stretches ranging from 3 weeks to a year…) and that makes it a place that I have called home, with many people, places, practices and perspectives that I love.
And I am gripped by sorrow for what has happened at places with which I am familiar, in the vicinity of people that I love. And I have felt a desperate emptiness, a helplessness in the face of all this that is real, and unadorned by thoughts of politics, or religion, or race, or any other framework within which others might wish to place my grief. I have no need to compare this real feeling of loss to that of others. I have no way of grieving on the same level for other places that I have never called home (or even visited), even while I can intellectually grasp the inherent disparities in media coverage, and the myriad other inequities those disparities mirror. I believe there is a difference between feeling empathy and grieving.
Empathy should be steady and strong. It should be constant and know no favorites.
Grieving takes time. It’s on its own schedule. It’s a process that needs the empathy of others.