‘What’s worse: people who add French flags to their Facebook profiles, or those who sneer at them?’ asks my colleague Isabel Hardman on Coffee House today. ‘Haven’t we always offered small gestures to commemorate sad events? Or to show respect? Why do we buy poppies in November, and feel under-dressed without them?’ In some ways, I agree with Isabel – it is normal to want to show respect, and to feel an emotional response to such serious events.
What troubles me about the profile picture change is not so much the act – had the option been to change your profile picture simply to a Tricolore, without your face behind it, I might have found it less hard to criticise. But as the faces started to pop up on Facebook, I started to feel frustrated – frustrated that in the midst of a terrible event unveiling in France, the best response we had was to promote our favourite pictures of ourselves. It seemed self-obsessed, rather than solemn. Of course, this is partly Facebook’s fault for offering the option and making us think it’s normal. But equally, it would not have been hard to upload a French flag as a profile picture, sans face, if we felt inclined. It would have taken perhaps one or two more clicks.
Perhaps if there was an option to print your face onto a poppy people might take it up. Others might also rightly say that a poppy represents someone else’s suffering – not yours – and that to do so would be deeply offensive. You wear it, but it does not need to wear you. I’d be inclined to say the same about the French flag, even if that makes me sound like a sneerer. By all means show respect. I’m just not sure we need our faces plastered on our chosen symbol in order to do so.