#TorontoStrong: Public Response to Public Tragedy

I walked past the memorial twice on Friday. I posted the following after the first:

(Click “View More on Instagram” to see all 10 photos in the series)

I walked past again on my way home and did stop and linger. I walked to the back side of that stone, put my end of my dog’s leash down and slowly walked and read. She lay down on the grass. I read. I took it in. I was touched by the tributes from far and wide. There’s another memorial down the street, at Mel Lastman Square, which used to serve as City Hall for North York. It’s where the vigil was held on Sunday.

I paused before taking photos to share the second time. Even though I’d done it earlier, this time I wondered if taking photos was grotesque or inappropriate. I wondered if doing so was providing entertainment.

It got me thinking of using tragedy for entertainment, commodification, fetishizing.

There’s a motto in the media:

If it bleeds, it leads.

Bleeding news sells.

Several years ago I heard the term “poverty porn” in a TV interview. I don’t remember who said it, only that it was a black man who was African-American by nationality, and who pointed out that it gave Americans the impression that poverty was everywhere in Africa, rather than there being a range of economic conditions. When I did a quick google search for the term looking for some more context to provide here, I found a wikipedia entry.

I think of “poverty porn” when I think of exploiting and sensationalizing news. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that media shouldn’t do their job or that media sensationalizes events for the sake of clicks (though they sometimes do, and media outlets are businesses, which is okay for them to be), but there is a certain amount of public spectacle. Grieving is personal. Every person who died last week was someone’s family member, friend or co-worker and despite the public display, I’d never want to be invasive or inappropriate.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

A friend posted the following on Facebook:

If you are uncomfortable with the use of the #________strong hashtag in reference to the Toronto van attack, you’re not the only one.

Giving more context in replies to comments, he said this:

Generally, I suppose I’m uncomfortable with the branding of a tragedy. It’s as if, whenever a scandal happens, we call it “_____gate”. Whenever a tragedy happens, is it now a “______strong”?

More specifically, this tragedy feels different from others that have used the #______strong tag. So, I’m not sure it fits in this case. I’m sad, but not afraid. So, I don’t feel as if there is anything for me to fight or be strong about.

This was my response, slightly edited with links added:

Re. Branding of tragedy:

I totally understand that. As a social media expert, I’m always interested to see how brands respond to tragedy and whether or not they choose to comment at all. Sometimes their response feels exploitative, for commercial gain. Other times, they do seem genuine. I was touched when The Wizards retweeted The Raptors and added a note of support. I was touched by the moment of silence before the hockey game on Monday.
[See my previous Medium post about Toronto Strong.]

Re. “I’m sad, but not afraid. So, I don’t feel as if there is anything for me to fight or be strong about.”

“Strength” can refer to different things. It can refer to being strong together as a community of support. It can be about fighting misogyny. It can be about fighting for support for people who are at risk of committing such acts.
I think that TorontoStrong is about standing together and acknowledging that an awful thing happened.

Questions to ask (or discuss) about the hashtag:
What’s the goal of the hashtag? Is it to raise awareness? Is it to implement change? If it’s the latter, what sort of change? Who’s taking action, how and what? What will the hashtag achieve?

That said, I don’t know if it needed a hashtag in order to make international news and to make an impact. I was way more uncomfortable by the commercialization of “Je suis Charlie”.

That’s where my comment ended, but to add more to that last statement I made:
There’s raising awareness and there’s exploitation. The difference is in the intent but no one knows the intention except for the person(s) executing it. So, whether a company is responding to tragedy for commercial gain or whether they are genuinely reaching out to their community, it might feel one way to those recieving the message but the intent can be something else. I have heard social media managers at big companies say that they don’t respond to tragedies because it could be perceived in a negative way. Sometimes the sensitive thing to do is to not act at all. Having motivations and authenticity questioned can derail good intentions.

Generally I don’t believe in being offended on behalf of other people because I think that a) it’s presumptuous — presuming that they should be offended, which is in itself offensive and b) it appropriates their feelings.

Mass Communications 101. Literally. I learned about this famous Marshall McLuhan statement during my first year of my Mass Communications degree. The way that we send and receive information is more important than the information itself.

The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

The phrase was introduced in McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. For McLuhan, it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled “the scale and form of human association and action”.

He could not have anticipated social media, or the concepts created within social media, such as hashtags.

So, about taking photos and posting them to social media? The answer I came up with was that people who don’t have the opportunity to visit might appreciate the images. I decided that my intent was heart-driven, not ego-driven. I’m not sharing for likes. I’m not sharing so that people can validate how much they care or so that I feel validated. I’m sharing so that people who view what I’ve posted see the faces of the humans who died. I’m sharing to show the impact that such an incident makes. I’m sharing to demonstrate an example of the community response. Flowers, cards, signatures from far and wide. I envision schools putting big poster boards out on a table with markers and inviting students and staff to come by to sign these tributes so that they can be delivered by a volunteer who may or may not live in the area.

One of the notes was from “Ms. McLean’s class, St. Louis School in Clarkson, Mississauga.” That’s 41.9 kilometers (26 miles) away from the site.

In the neighbourhood, the church around the corner had set up a sandwich board sign next to the memorial site that offered coffee, rest place, restrooms, prayer and water, in that order. While I don’t think the sign-maker ordered the list by importance (“water” was at the bottom), the list does feel more inclusive (non-denominational) by not putting “prayer” up top.

It’s quite something to see but the vibe of being there is distinct. As I said in my Instagram and Facebook posts, lots of wet eyes. Also lots of sniffling.

I welcome your thoughts.

Digital Marketing Manager | Freelance Writer | ADHD Coach for adults | Available for hire. http://andreawrites.ca.