Emeka Forbes-Hastings

Naked Politics Blogger 

In the wake of tragic events, from natural disasters to acts of terrorism, social media is usually awash with scores of similar posts. “I was literally there last month, it could have been me”. In predictable fashion, posts like this usually garner comments from two distinct groups of people; those who share in the panic and try to find their own link to some tragedy, and those who call out what they see as an attempt to get attention.

It’s easy to see the point of people who attack “I was just there” posts. Equating a personal sense of ‘near-miss’ because you went to Barcelona last summer with the real impact on actual victims who were there and don’t have the luxury to post self-indulgent updates to social media in comfort, miles away from an event is surely indefensible. Donald Trump gave us a masterclass in the art of falsely personalising a tragedy when stood atop a fire truck; he thanked victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, many of whom had lost their homes, for ‘coming out’ and marvelled at the size of the crowd. In the early days of Trump’s presidency, there may have been attempts to defend such an objectionable form of behaviour by citing his familiarity with speaking at campaign rallies as opposed to disaster zones, but that excuse can no longer wash.

When a small group of terrorists driven by an extremist ideology drove a car across Westminster bridge, running down those in its path, before fatally stabbing PC Keith Palmer at Parliament’s carriage gates, I was safely in the comfort of my flat several miles away. Incidentally, I’d planned to visit Parliament that day to attend a committee meeting but changed my plan at the last minute. When a coordinated terrorist attack was carried out at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in June last year killing 45, I was once again safely at home. A few months previously though, I’d flown through the same airport and stood in the same terminal.

My point is that most of us have the ability to draw some exceedingly tedious connection to a specific event – whether we were recently in the same place, know somebody with a third cousin whose fiancé’s sister was caught up in events, or like Trump, just have an incredibly inflated ego and genuinely believe everything is about us to begin with. But does this make it wrong to engage in this kind of self-serving behaviour?

The principle motive behind our habit of finding links between ourselves and tragic events, is that such links are usually relatively easy to calculate. The effects of globalisation, the advent of the Internet and social media, and the arrival of cheap Ryanair flights across Europe have led to an obvious shrinking of the world in our minds. Cities that would, a generation or two ago have seemed far flung are now easier to connect with than parts of our own country. It makes sense then that people will feel a stronger sense of personal investment in a tragedy which is objectively remote from their own lives.

There is a fundamental difference between using common experiences to empathise with victims of a tragedy, and using common experiences to inflate a personal mirage of victimhood. We have a responsibility to distinguish the two before we call people out online, but we also have a responsibility to avoid the trap of “I was literally just there” ourselves, if we are improve the way we collectively respond online to tragic events.

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Last Update: April 22, 2018