There’s been a lot of horror in the news recently, and there’s a thing that happens pretty much every time something terrible happens.
We try and sum it up in a hashtag.
I understand why we do this, we want to show solidarity with the victims of the tragedy, and we want to get the word out, let others know that this is not something we can support.
And sometimes it’s a really effective tool, as is the case with the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown at the hands of police officers. This article on the Huff Post clearly shows how fast and how global the outrage was, as the hashtags #ICantBreathe, #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot spread across the globe.
The hastags got people talking, they helped with spreading the word about racism, and how prevalent and institutionalised it is in our society. People wrote about it, people read about it, and people got educated about something they previously may of been unaware of.
Sometimes a few words can help galvanise and strengthen a movement to global levels, and if not make things better, can at least let everyone know that things are not okay.
Using hashtags in this instance was an effective tool that furthered a cause and enabled complex and important discussion to take place, and continue to take place, in order that change might happen. Basically, having key words that people could rally behind helped further a just cause.

Sometimes though the hashtag is used without thought or understanding to the bigger picture. Sometimes the hashtag erases other issues, just as important, but continually ignored.
Take for instance the hashtag being used at the moment, in the wake of the attack in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
#JeSuisCharlie, I am Charlie. It’s been used to show solidarity with the victims of the shootings, to show that we stand united against the threat of terrorism, that we will not stand for this sort of attack on our civil and human rights.
Does it tell us though that Charlie Hebdo also printed cartoons that were racist? Does it tell us that some of the work published was considered anti-Semitic, or that they depicted a black woman as a monkey?
Does it mention about the strong anti Islamic stance a lot of the work published shows?
The murder of these journalists was wrong. Freedom of speech is a right that everyone should have, and people should not have to die for it, but freedom of speech doesn’t mean that everything you say under that banner is right.
In fact, saying that its okay to mock and generalise Muslim people, or people of colour, or Jews, because free speech, probably isn’t actually okay.

I think we muddle up things like this sometimes. We think we can say anything we want, and then when people call us out on it we start shouting about freedom of speech and being oppressed because someone disagrees with what we’ve said. It’s easy to think free speech only applies to us, or that it somehow protects us from any criticism when we say something wrong, but actually it should do the very opposite.
It should expose us to criticism, it should help us to challenge our views and open our minds. We should all become better people through the medium of free speech, rather than just banging heads together like angry goats.
Of course it’s easy to say that, and I know if I’m challenged on my views I sometimes find it hard to accept.
I think, and this is my own personal opinion here, that, in general, we have a really hard time accepting that we might have got something wrong, especially when we see ourselves as good people.
Good people can be wrong people, no question about it, and that’s hard to accept.

Let me give you an example. I found it hard to accept that some things might be seen as cultural appropriation*. I didn’t understand it, and as a white, middle class person, who also sees themselves as a good person, I just assumed it wasn’t something I needed to be aware of because everyone should have the right to freedom of expression.
That sounds a lot like what I was saying earlier about how some people view freedom of speech doesn’t it?
Thing is, freedom of expression is all good and fine when, as the dominant culture, you can do whatever the fuck you like. It’s not so great when you’re the oppressed culture though.
As a member of the dominant culture it’s sometimes hard to take it when someone else tells you, “Hey y’know what? I’m not that keen on you using Sugar Skulls as a window display to sell your stuff.” say.
As you read that, some of you maybe thinking but…but… it looks cool, it’s only a bit of fun for Halloween, what’s so wrong about using Sugar Skulls?
Well, this article sums it up pretty well.
(tl;dr – Modern Halloween is a hedonistic holiday about the self, Día de los Muertos is a holiday honouring deceased relatives and friends. Using Sugar Skulls is appropriation because it’s using something from another culture outside of it’s intended context. Seriously though, read the article.)

This is an example of something I did, and then was told was not actually that cool a thing to do. I wanted to disagree, because I couldn’t think of myself as wrong in that situation, because the cultural significance of the thing I was appropriating wasn’t relevant to my life.
That’s the real clincher here sometimes, it didn’t matter to me. My arrogance as the appropriating culture wouldn’t allow me to realise why this might be wrong, and it was only after finding out more (a lot more) about it that I realised why I actually was very wrong.

That’s a time I got it wrong, despite being a good person. Even if it feels like it though, getting it wrong doesn’t make us bad people. What makes us bad people is when we don’t educate ourselves, when we refuse to listen when we’re called out, when we generalise a whole culture, or simplify a situation because the bigger picture doesn’t sit comfortably with our viewpoint. Put simply, it’s when we refuse to accept that sometimes we do get it wrong.

Its hard to see sometimes, especially when something terrible happens, and all we want to do is shout, or cry, but we owe it to ourselves to really look, and to look not just at what we’re being told, but also to look at what we’re not.

*wiki has a page on what Cultural Appropriation is here and this is a pretty useful article on Everyday Feminism as well, should you want to know more.