Immortalized in popular media through Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and its spinoff animated Disney film, Notre-Dame de Paris is part of a select group of architectural wonders that exists only in animated form in my brain. So, last Monday, when the shocking pictures and live streams of Notre Dame engulfed in flames were passed around the lunch table, it took a moment for me to register the devastation. The image of the iconic spire, skeletal in incineration, immediately elicits an emotional reaction, inciting feelings of hopelessness in the face of tragedy. It quickly took over social media, with bystanders and news outlets alike providing live updates, allowing people around the world to view this tragedy. The resulting sympathetic outpour was immediately challenged on Twitter, with tweets pointing to the ongoing Flint water crisis and the burning of three black churches in Louisiana as worthier recipients of social media attention and donations.
These tweets highlight the power of social media as well as the inherent hierarchy of information that it perpetuates. A benefit of Twitter is its ability to democratize information, creating platforms for people to access more sources of information allowing the user exposure to stories across the world which they wouldn’t have had access to previously through the curated mainstream news cycle. This has created a context in which the user’s attention is valuable, where retweets and favorites can drive change and visibility for injustice. It is this context of competition for attention as well as the ensuing promises of funding exceeding 900 million euros that drove the frustration of those who challenged the media frenzy surrounding Notre Dame’s burning.
The burning of Notre Dame is powerful because of its symbolism. We search for landmarks and symbols as a means to feel more human, to connect to a larger population of people that we may have little in common with beyond existence in the same geographic location. These icons are represented and reproduced over and over again in popular media, photographs and lore, situating themselves in a collective spatial memory. For the French, Notre Dame is a core symbol of French culture, an essentialization of a country’s values. However, in the wake of its burning and the ensuing fundraising frenzy in which French billionaires pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to the restoration, the country’s values came under fire as France continues to be defined by inequalities, which are currently being protested by the Yellow Vest movement. There is hollow hypocrisy that comes with pouring billions of dollars into a historical relic while living people who share the same identity struggle to live.
The story of Notre Dame falls into a phenomenon in media called “grief porn,” which is the promotion of tragedy for tragedy’s sake. Kelly Conaboy of The Gawker describes its effect as “a packaged, heightened jolt that mimics a natural, human experience. It’s voyeuristic, addictive, and compulsively attractive. It grabs at a desire to indulge when indulgence is otherwise unavailable.” In a world full of tragedy, this poses the question — whose grief is more important?
I find this sentiment difficult because I believe that sadness can not be quantified. As human we do not have a set capacity for grief or feelings of loss. However, social media and its unpredictable oscillations of assigning importance should not be the only thing that dictates our grief. It is important to understand what we are grieving and acknowledge the space for reflection and reevaluation that grieving provides. It is this process that allows us to question the underpinnings of the things we love and reevaluate what values we hold close as we rebuild and recover.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Linguistics runs alternate Mondays this semester.