Selective outrage and class consciousness: taking care with the words ‘we’ and ‘you’

The recent terrorist atrocity in Paris, like that of ten months earlier, has produced a range of political responses.

People fleeing the Bataclan concert hall. Paris 13 November 2015 Photo: AFP

People fleeing the Bataclan concert hall. Paris 13 November 2015 Photo: AFP

First off the mark were the imperialist politicians. Instantly sensing an opportunity to beef up their security apparatus, advance their war-drive, and pose as the defenders of freedom at the same time, they noisily condemned the attacks. French president Francois Hollande declared, “In the face of terror, there is one nation that knows how to defend itself, knows how to mobilize its forces and, once again, will defeat the terrorists.”  French bombers were soon in the air over Syria, raining yet more death and destruction on that country. And among the targets of the imperialists were the people of Paris themselves, who woke to find that the police had been given sweeping new powers to stop and search.

French warplanes taking off to bomb Syria the day after Paris attack

French warplanes taking off to bomb Syria the day after Paris attack

Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, relieved to have something to draw the spotlight away from the brutal treatment of asylum-seekers and others in Australia’s concentration camps, enthusiastically joined the chorus. “Australians’ thoughts, prayers & resolute solidarity with people of France as they respond to brutal terrorist attacks in Paris tonight”, he tweeted.

Merging with saturation coverage by the big-business news media, this whirlwind of political grandstanding quickly turned into a worldwide public spectacle, with ostentatious lightshows on public buildings in the colours of the French flag. The precedent for all this had been set last January, when the mass mobilisations repudiating the terrorist attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo were turned into demonstrations of support for French imperialism.

French President Francois Hollande leads million-strong march in support of French state, January 2015, flanked by Angela Merkel and Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. (AFP Photo: Philippe Wojazer)

French President Francois Hollande leads million-strong march in support of French state, January 2015, flanked by Angela Merkel and Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. (AFP Photo: Philippe Wojazer)

Equally cynical, in a different way, was the ISIS claim of responsibility for the carnage. As full of fakery and bragging as the statement undoubtedly is, its celebration of “the deaths of no less than two hundred crusaders and the wounding of even more” is an accurate measure of the contempt for human life that characterises this organisation.

All this left surprisingly little space for genuine expressions of solidarity and concern for the victims of the Paris atrocity, their families and friends. The first impulse of any worker, indeed any human being who has not been robbed of their humanity by capitalist society, was to express empathy with the innocent people killed in these attacks, and solidarity with their grieving relatives and friends. Many sought ways to do that, through social media and by other means. Doing so without getting caught up in the whirlwind of imperialist hypocrisy was not easy. Yet that is the most important political task in the aftermath of the atrocity.

The Paris atrocity took place only a few days after a similar ISIS bombing in Beirut left 43 people dead. In this case, there were no light shows, no 24-hour TV coverage, no thundering denunciations of the violence by world leaders.

This imbalance too was very like the situation ten months ago. I happened to be in Burkina Faso in West Africa at the time of the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. At almost exactly the same time, some 2,000 civilians were killed in an attack by Islamist group Boko Haram at Baga in northern Nigeria. Even in Burkina Faso, a close neighbour of Nigeria, there was greater press coverage of the Paris events than there was of the much greater loss of life, much closer to home, in Baga.

So it is no wonder that this imbalance also entered the discussions on the Paris atrocity. An article in Australian publication New Matilda commented that the Paris attack “looks like it’s also designed to highlight our selective outrage.” Author Chris Graham asked: “How do we explain our identification with French suffering and our apparent indifference to Lebanese suffering? Or more to the point, how do we explain our indifference to the suffering of people we perceive as different, Lebanese, African, Hazara, Muslim…. Brown people.”

Expressions of the same idea appeared on social media as well, some of which threw in a dose of offensive anti-French prejudice as well, such as this graphic:

Share if you love brie fb graphic

A human is a human despite the location graphic

A post by Roua Naboulsi, a student at the University of Sussex, was widely circulated on Facebook, until it was removed by Facebook censors. (The post can be read in full here as a blog – and I strongly recommend doing this, in order to see the kind of completely inoffensive material that Facebook censors as it works to steer the discussion into pro-imperialist channels).

Naboulsi writes: “What happened in Paris last night was awful. I stayed up late following the news in disbelief and I am so sorry to anyone who has been affected by the horrible attacks. The international community has responded, as predicted, by showing their unwavering solidarity with Paris.

“The night before that, a bomb went off in my country, Lebanon, killing 43 people. No one prayed for us. No one kept us in their thoughts. No world leaders made late-night statements about us. No one changed their profile pictures. There was no hashtag. No option to be “marked as safe” by Facebook. Just silence.

“Syria has suffered more than can be quantified in words and distilled into a Facebook status. They get nothing. Just more silence.

“73 Palestinians were killed by Israel in October alone. Silence.

“Nearly 100 people were killed by explosions at a peace rally in Ankara last month. Just silence.

“At least 3,500 people have been killed in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger in conflict this year. Silence.


The only conclusion that could be drawn from all this is that it is somehow improper to express solidarity with the victims of the atrocity in Paris – at least, if you haven’t already done the same for the victims in Lebanon, Syria, Ankara, Palestine and so on. To do so would be just another expression of ‘selective outrage.’

That would be a mistake. Nothing should stand in the way of expressing support for the people of Paris.

The mistaken conclusion arises from an error of identification. When New Matilda talks about “our selective outrage,” who exactly is the “we” the author has in mind here? It is the Australian ‘nation’. But the Australian nation, just like the French, Lebanese, Nigerian and Syrian nations, is class-divided. There is not a single voice that speaks for all classes in Australia.  New Matilda – perhaps unwittingly – thus fixes responsibility for the hypocrisy of the Australian ruling class onto Australian working people. The Gaza110 statement makes the same mistake, from the opposite side, lumping together the genuine solidarity of working people with the imperialist crimes under the heading of “your selective humanity and sympathy.”

By the same token, there can be no such thing as solidarity with “Paris,” because there are two “Parises” – on the one hand, the Paris of the working class and its allies, who are the targets of the terror attacks, and on the other, the Paris of Hollande, his military, news media, and police, who ultimately share part of the responsibility for the attacks.

Roua Naboulsi’s post illustrates the isolation that results from a failure to see the world in class terms. When the outrages in Beirut, Ankara, and Palestine occurred, she heard “Just silence.”  Yet there were in fact voices raised across the world in solidarity with the victims of these atrocities. They were not powerful voices, they do not control the news media or political power. But they were raised. In order to advance, we have to be able to recognise both our allies (and our enemies) in every country of the world. If Roua Naboulsi heard “just silence,” she must have her ear turned to the wrong voices.

Fifty years ago, Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara was about to leave Cuba to lead a revolutionary struggle in Bolivia. He wrote to his young children, knowing well that he might never see them again. He said he hoped they would grow up as good revolutionaries. “Above all,” he wrote, “always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.”

In my book, ‘anywhere in the world’ includes Beirut. And it also includes Paris.

One response to “Selective outrage and class consciousness: taking care with the words ‘we’ and ‘you’

  1. Good words, fine essay. I have commented on this claim of media “silence” after terrorist attacks in Africa (in particular) in other venues. My recollection is this: that there was extensive coverage of the genocide in Rwanda, the many attacks of Boko Haram and the attack on the mall in Nigeria, to name three. In fact movies and/or major documentaries have accompanied all three. HBO is currently airing a full-length accounting of the attack on the shopping mall. And an outpouring of solidarity accompanied these atrocities by people of good will around the world. It’s a minor point I suppose because I do agree that the volume of coverage and the political goals of the big-business media differ from case to case, but I think people who follow the world will pause over the claim that there was no reaction to events in Africa. In the Middle East where terrorist attacks on working people are more commonplace, the coverage is even less, although again, there has been coverage, especially when attacks have been carried out by the likes of ISIS.

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