It’s an unavoidable semantic reality: Activist hashtags only seem to catch on if we phrase them to be about ourselves. In the five days since two men gunned down 12 people in the offices of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, that’s become particularly clear. We could have stood with Charlie, or mourned Charlie, or performed any number of other verbs in French or English; we could have held pens in the air or said “not afraid,” as chanters in Paris’ Place de la Republique did.
That stuff is catchy, right? Hashtag-worthy? Not terribly impinging on the length of a 140-character tweet?
And yet, the only thing to really go viral — on such a scale that several outlets falsely reported it as the most-tweeted hashtag of all time — was that one, predictable construction: #JeSuisCharlie. #JeSuisAhmed. Je suis, je suis, je suis.
Why do we tend to respond to tragedies in this oddly self-referential way? It a phenomenon by no means unique to the Paris shooting, as Amanda Hess writes in a great piece for Slate: assuming the identity of the victim has become our de facto response to everything from perceived police brutality (#ICantBreathe) to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls (#BringBackOurGirls — emphasis on “our”).
It’s all well-intentioned, of course: The implication, particularly after a tragedy, is that we share the victim’s ideals — or, barring that, their grief. We assume their identity out of empathy with them.
But alas, the line between assuming and subsuming is thin, and even well-intentioned hashtags tend to smear the two together, blurring out facts that are complicated or otherwise inconvenient. Claiming that “we are Charlie” willfully ignores the facts that the staffers at Charlie are actually a very rare breed, who kept publishing despite very real threats to, and attempts on, their lives. Likewise, to see so many non-Jews tweeting “I am Jewish” — while a well-intentioned nod to Paris’ Jewish community! — just feels weird; you simply can’t claim an identity so inextricably tied to pain and persecution, when you’ve suffered none of that history.
I’m reminded, oddly enough, of a criticism the Ferguson activist and organizer DeRay Mckesson made of the rapper Iggy Azalea: She’s performing a genre of music born from black struggle, he points out; so “what does it mean that you identify with everything but the struggle part?”
It’s not a perfect comparison, of course; there’s a world of difference between appropriating someone else’s struggle as a multinational superstar and merely tweeting about it from the comfort of your home. But both are public performances, and in neither is it always clear what people are performing.
Saying “I am Charlie” is, among various other things, a de facto declaration of your personal politics and beliefs, a way of marking your territory on a divisive issue. Is that about the 12 murdered people at Charlie Hebdo, or is that about you, actually? In the contextless, character-confined world of Twitter, there are only shades of difference between heartfelt solidarity … and repetitive, one-off chirps of “me, me, me.”
That may be Twitter’s great, lasting gift, though: It sums up all these individual statements and gives us something like cohesion or community. There’s no ambiguity in the 5 million tweets sent on #JeSuisCharlie between Jan. 7 and 9. Taken together, that’s the world saying: “This is what we believe.”