When we witness a disaster taking place, be it small or large, an urge to speak out is a common and natural reaction. When small, it does not feel right that others should continue their life in ignorance of this event. When big it is as if we diminish its importance with our silence, though we know that all of us are current to what has taken place.

I suppose it is from this sentiment that flowed the hundreds of thousands of posts on social media when the Notre-Dame de Paris burned last week. At first, I found it touching how people concerned themselves for its fate. I myself felt surprisingly shocked, agitated and genuinely sorrowful for what happened to the cathedral. for the potential destruction of so much art, for how irretrievable that which was lost is, and, not insignificantly, for the reminder that preciously little in our lives and our world are permanent or certain. It reminded me of a tenth century Old English poem, The Wanderer, which goes:

“In the earth-realm all is crossed;

Wierd’s [“fate’s”, TV] will changeth the world.

Wealth is lent us, friends are lent us,

man is lent, kin is lent;

all this earth’s frame shall stand empty.”[1]

It did not take long, though, before the various messages coalesced into an undifferentiated mush: “The Notre-Dame, how terrible!” The uniform display of mass soppiness, often spiced up with some egocentrism – “the Notre-Dame, where I was, how terrible!” – has turned tragedy into kitsch. Do not mistake this for a misanthropy. I will not launch into a diatribe of herd mentality, nor will I attribute cynical motives to those who placed such messages online. Nevertheless, it is hard to come to terms with the tendency of social media to turn mass events into farce so easily. How to maintain dignity – of our own, of society, and of all directly affected by such a disaster – in such a democratically mediated environment?

It is certainly not by adopting the attitude of those who, almost right after the event, started judging, sneering at and even mocking the public expressions of dismay at the cathedral’s burning. This “hypercritique”, so to speak, at first seems to consists of little else than whataboutism. It is contemptible for its pretence of being a serious form of criticism while it is just as blasé as the expressions it attacks. Its ready-made conceptual framework does not serve to question how we though about events, but how we categorize them. It does not treat events on their own, but instrumentalizes them as tools to be used in a broader tribal conflict, thereby diminishing them.

However, it is not a sign of intelligence, independent thought or a critical attitude to proclaim that “people should pay attention to ‘X’ [the unrest in Sudan, the war in Yemen, the burning of African-American churches, etc.] instead of to the Notre-Dame fire”, because it is not a critique of how our media works or of the lack of attention to these issues. It is a condemnation of the attention for the fire as such. A condemnation, moreover, which seems careful not to consider the object of the event itself, not to consider what has been burned. It is “a way of thinking that turns away from the core of the matter to something else” which Václav Havel termed “evasive thinking” in 1965. It is a concept which, despite its age, is still very current and the operation of which Havel described brilliantly:

“…the praiseworthy attempt to see things in their wider context becomes so formalized that instead of applying that technique in particular, unique ways, appropriate to a given reality, it becomes a single and widely used model of thinking with a special capacity to dissolve—in the vagueness of all the possible wider contexts—everything particular in that reality. Thus what looks like an attempt to see something in a complex way in fact results in a complex form of blindness. For if we can’t see individual, specific things, we can’t see anything at all. And the more we know only what is apparent about reality, the less we know about reality in fact.” [2] (Emphasis mine.)

It is this effort to avoid seeing matters in their own right, which makes the hypercritique of the Notre-Dame fire not mere whataboutism, but a form of evasive thinking, and which makes it so objectionable. However, here too it remains important to avoid the traps of cynicism and misanthropy “and this is what is tragic about the whole affair – it was [stated] with the purest of intentions, in the sincere belief that it was contributing, albeit tactically, to a good cause.” Evasive thinking is not an error of error of intention, it is an error of thought. [2]

It is important to note the difference here with the remark that the speedy donation of hundreds of millions for the restoration of the Notre-Dame de Paris shows that the rich can clearly and easily contribute more to the challenges faced by our societies. This does not mean to say that “X” should have been done instead of these donations, but that they demonstrate that it is possible for the wealthy to contribute more on “X”. It does not attack the legitimacy of restoring art, but supports the idea of the responsibility of the wealthy towards society. It does not evade what is at hand, but moves on to the next.

I write this, because this is not the first time that I have noticed these tendencies play up after notable events, because my frustration with them has grown and because I am not succeeding in developing my thoughts on how to speak when confronted with disasters such as these. Perhaps it is simply best to remain silent, but if so: how?

* * *

[1] Anonymous (2013). The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

[2] Havel, V. (1992). Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990. London, United Kingdom: Faber & Faber.


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