Oh, the wonderful and terrible power of social media to unite and divide.
On Sunday, yet another tragedy shook the United States when a man walked in to a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and shot 26 people dead with an assault rifle. As has become common in the wake of events like this in the last year or so, social media flooded with messages from people reacting to the appalling news, many not knowing what to say beyond the fact that they were sending “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. Some non-religious people may have chosen slightly different wording (“thinking of the victims and their families” or “sending my love”), but the sentiment is largely the same; we feel stunned, powerless, a little scared, and so very sad for you, your loss, and for our country.
These are very common, natural emotions to experience in the face of terrible news, whether it touches you directly or not. We may know that expressing these feelings doesn’t necessarily do any tangible good or provide relief for the people involved in the tragedy; actions, of course, always speak louder than words. If you believe in the power of prayer, pray; if you hold a strong conviction about how legislation could help alleviate or even prevent situations like this, do your research and campaign; if you are able to donate to relief work and charities working on the ground to help people who are suffering, donate.
But expressing that initial sympathy in the face of a tragedy doesn’t make you a fraud, or a hypocrite, or an idiot. It makes you human.
Why do I even feel the need to state what seems to be a very obvious point? If you’ve noticed the trend for expressing your sympathy and shock about national and international tragedies on social media, you’re sure to have noticed a counter-trend that’s been emerging recently; taking aim at people who offer “thoughts and prayers”. American comedian, writer, and actor Rob Delaney tweeted “God laughs at your prayers” the other day; British actor Jason Isaacs tweeted that expressing that kind of sentiment was an “insult” to the victims and their families. I’m sure you’ve seen a wave of similar messages on social media from celebrities and friends, alike.
The thing is, though, since when has shaming people for an expression of empathy ever helped? Since when has expressing a simple emotion like sorrow, shock, sadness, and a desire to help been actively harmful in situations like these? Does expressing love for a fellow man or woman, as insubstantial as that gesture may be on its own, necessarily mean you’re not going to do something else to help?
I understand that many feel political unrest right now, and that there may, in fact, be a need for the policy changes these angry tweeters are demanding. But, I can't help but think that there must be a better way to express that frustration than by condemning a simple expression of community.
When my father was dying a slow and horrible death from final-stage cancer, messages flooded in from friends, family, and strangers to let my family know that they were thinking of us. Did I resent those messages? Of course not. At best they took the edge off my loneliness, and at worst I just didn’t notice them. Many friends coupled their messages with practical help and support, sending mix tapes and flowers and sweet pick-me-ups, or dropping by with home-cooked meals and supplies, offering to do a grocery store shop for us, to clean the house, to walk the dog, to babysit my infant daughter, to give us lifts to and from the hospital. That practical support was invaluable and I will never forget it; but there was also so much worth and value in the messages of love and support that we received during that time.
I don’t mean to imply that a national-scale tragedy like a shooting or act of terror is the same as a personal tragedy like my father’s death. I don’t know whether the families of the victims appreciate—or are even seeing—the messages from strangers and public figures around the world. I do know that emotions and opinions are running high around events that have highly political implications. But surely we must be allowed to keep a human face on tragedies, even if politics are involved; surely we must remember the people behind the tragedy. Surely, whatever else you believe needs to be done in the wake of a tragedy like the Texas church shooting, a simple message of love and support doesn’t deserve vitriol and mockery.