Paris, France and the Fast Flick of Empathy

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      – Elie Wiesel, Writer and Political Activist

Leonhardt, Justine. “Luxembourg Garden”. 2011. JPEG.

To me, for many years, Paris has been an iconic city that really has no equal. I’ve come to feel an immense adoration for Barcelona and Melbourne and even my home of Vancouver, but Paris held the dreams of my youth, a city so akin to what I loved that I believed my name was French because I was supposed to be French. Luckily, in the years since, I’ve spent a lot of time in the city, walking all the way around Boulevard Périphérique and through the emptied Bois de Boulogne park in the middle of December; studying French while lounging around the basin at the Luxembourg Garden; traversing the arrondissements to locate the architecture of Hector Guimard and Le Corbusier; eating crepes and croque madames from street carts, and visiting the most lauded patisseries in the hopes of finding the best pastry item in the city. As a result, Paris is full of specificity for me, streets I walked at the break of dawn that I know intrinsically.

To a person who has never travelled to Paris or had any particular interest in France, the events of last Friday would likely be devastating enough on their own. The sight of bullet holes through glass and white sheets lined up along the pavement are images that we have become accustomed to seeing, but not in the systematic killing that occurred on November 13th in the French capital.

For someone who hasn’t seen the streets of Paris and ventured up its avenues, it’s hard to measure the immensity of the assault. We’ve become inured to the shock of a new devastation until the news cycle makes it commonplace, unconsciously preparing us for whatever worse thing will come next. The headlines quickly tally up of environmental catastrophes, corporate malfeasance and unpredictable violence that horrify us without – in most cases – compelling us to act.

The author Neil Postman referred to this very thing, saying that:

 “…Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action…the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote.”

If the relationship between what the news is and what we can act upon is – in essence – remote, it becomes suddenly easy to see why people react by memorializing on Twitter or utilizing the Facebook Tricolore filter to show solidarity with France. Without question, people feel a sense of horror at what’s happened and a feeling of helplessness ensues, but injecting ourselves into tragedies we cannot alter or improve only strains meaning further. If the opposite of love is indifference, we’ve registered ours.

For any decent person, it is easy to feel derailed and defeated by daily tragedies, the infinities of injustice that can only be absorbed and soon bypassed. But, while the feeling of helplessness is constant and unavoidable in an information-saturated culture, possibility exists within our own communities, among our neighbours and friends. It is not possible for us to fix everything, but we can start with ourselves, whether it’s volunteer work, protest or daily acts of kindness that resound out into the world in the streets we know and have walked.

No one can undo what’s been done in Paris or the tragedies that have occurred elsewhere, but the cry into the darkness of a Facebook filter or a quick memorialization is not going to effect change. We are not to blame if we hear of tragedy and feel lost, but if we fail to act in our own backyards in a way that demands more from us than fleeting interest, our indifference – for ourselves and the world – may prove to be more devastating than hate.

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