Published May 22, 11 AM
By Joslyn Hamilton
The phenomenon of “praying on Facebook”: when something terrible happens (like the recent horrific bombing of the Boston marathon or the tornado in Oklahoma), and the Facebook feed gets flooded with people posting things like “We’re praying for you, <insert catastrophe shorthand>” and “I’m going to get on my yoga mat and pray.”
Maybe it’s because as a card-carrying Masshole*, I’m not really into the touchy feely woo woo, but this rubs me ever-so-slightly the wrong way. I’m fairly confident the sentiment comes from a truly good place, and I understand how it feels. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, it was hard to be 3,000 miles away from a city super close to my heart, worried about all my friends and wishing there was something I could do. It’s a helpless feeling. Our hearts truly do “go out” to the people of Boston and Oklahoma (and Connecticut, and Haiti, and New Orleans, etc.)—maybe not literally, but in spirit. We want to be there to offer support, comfort, solidarity, what have you.
Instead, we offer solidarity through social media.
One of the best things about social media is its ability to connect us and make us feel closer to old friends and family and people who aren’t where we are. I don’t begrudge the idea of social media support. I am an avid champion of social media and our ability to communicate with people quickly and express ourselves easily. Social media can also be a powerful forum for activism. In the case of the Boston bombings, it helped spread bystander photographs and videos quickly, which may or may not have helped to catch the bombers. (It also ruined the reputation of an already-dead Brown student totally unrelated to the bombings, but that’s another story which The Atlantic told well.)
Where I get tripped up is with the suggestion that praying, or worse, “sending good energy” is actually doing something for victims of tragedies. When I read these posts, it seems like the person on the other end has the false sense of having affected change or contributed in an essential way to help out. I would wager a guess that the person this post helps the most is the person who made the comment.
After the bombing in Boston, I was having a conversation with my mom about the violence in the world today.
She made a comment about how things started getting bloody in the ’60s and just keep getting worse, with no end in sight. My mom came of age as an idealistic young hippie during the Woodstock era. She has remained an idealistic young hippie through the Reagan era and the Bush eras and all the way up until now. My Facebook friends who talk about “praying for Boston” and “sending love and support” (presumably over the internet, although it’s possible they mean telekinetically) remind me of my mom’s generation of peace lovin’ longhairs: the intention is there, but not much meaningful action. Except, one could argue that my mom’s generation actually did try to get out there and make a difference. They didn’t have Facebook, so to make a statement, they actually had to march on things and make signs.
At any rate, while love-ins and peace marches make a good statement, I’m not sure if they’ve ever made much of a difference. By now I think we’ve learned that simply voicing our opinion doesn’t necessarily effort change—and certainly not when we’re voicing it over social media, where most of our friends already agree with us. It’s an insular world, Facebook is.
But here is who is not listening to your effortless Facebook post: the guy staying up all night learning how to make a crude homemade bomb in his basement so he can go commit a terrorist act that kills and injures innocent people. That guy is not paying any attention whatsoever to the Facebook messages pleading for peace on earth, because that guy is busy. He is motivated. He is ambitious. He is coming up with a plan and setting it in action. He’s getting shit done. And that guy is winning.
Those of us who rally on the side of less violence and more peace’n’love are in a bit of a quandary, because really, how do you take MORE action on LESS violence?
Sure, you can lobby for gun control laws (and for those who have, I commend you, even if Congress sucks right now). But without guns, terrorists will simply find another way. Is naively trying to spread goodwill on social media our only option? What can we do to make a difference?
Well, we can start by being more prepared. On the New Yorker website two days after the Boston bombing, Atul Gawande wrote an essay explaining why Boston’s hospitals prepared to intake the victims and sprang into pragmatic action so quickly:
Talking to people about that day, I was struck by how ready and almost rehearsed they were for this event. A decade earlier, nothing approaching their level of collaboration and efficiency would have occurred. We have, as one colleague put it to me, replaced our pre-9/11 naïveté with post-9/11 sobriety. Where before we’d have been struck dumb with shock about such events, now we are almost calculating about them.
My friend Jesse Seaver wrote a piece for his column on Huffington Posts’s Impact vertical about the real steps we can all take to help in a catastrophe, even from across the country or around the world. We can make sure we are signed up to be organ donors. We can give blood. We can take a CPR course. We can volunteer for a cause that speaks to us. We can give our time. We can give our money. (Seriously. Give money. To the Red Cross, to the Salvation Army, to someone you know in Boston or Oklahoma who is struggling. Money helps.)
These tactical bandaids don’t really get to the root of the problem, but I would argue that they are a more proactive way to contribute to our world than simply posting benevolent well-wishes on Facebook. Every time something like this happens, we all freak out on Facebook for five minutes, and then we don’t hear about it again. A few days after every major disaster happens elsewhere in the world, my Facebook feed always goes right back to normal: people posting pics of their food, pimping their next yoga class, checking in at the ballet. In one way, this speaks to our resilience. In another, it feels trite.
I’m not claiming to have any solutions—God, I wish I did—but wonder what it would be like if we all stopped praying on Facebook and instead went out and took an EMT class or gave a pint of blood. While you’re at it, thank a cop or a fireman today. Cuz those guys are also getting real things done on a daily basis.
* I googled “what do you call people from Massachusetts because I have always called them Massholes but felt like maybe that would be obnoxious in this case, but I was wrong. According to the web site http://state-facts.findthedata.org, this is actually proper nomenclature.
About Joslyn Hamilton