Last night, a bomb was detonated at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in England, killing at least 22 and wounding at least 59. Like the 2015 attack on the Bataclan during the Eagles of Death Metal concert (which killed 130) in Paris, this is an unfathomable, heartbreaking tragedy. As the music community, and the world at large, began mourning, a journalist working for several major publications tweeted, “The last time I listened to Ariana Grande I almost died too.” Cue record scratch as we attempt to answer the ultimate question: What the hell?
I’m intentionally not using the writer’s name here—with any luck the public callouts he’s already endured will force him to consider why he made such a crude joke, rather than simply entrench his sophomoric view. And truthfully, the underlying issue is bigger than an offensive collection of 140 characters. By the very phrasing of the statement, he’s claimed a tribe and declared that his taste in music has somehow elevated his status as a human over the many who lost their lives in the attack.
Last year, I asked Sarah Assbring of El Perro Del Mar what she would like to change in the world, a hot-button issue in what would soon become a disastrous election cycle. “I would take away the very notion of nations,” she replied. “People belonging to nations and flags and borders. It’s been awful, and it continues to be awful. I don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s going to reach a level where it’s going to keep becoming worse until it can’t go anywhere. Then maybe it’s going to turn into something else. But first it’s going to end somewhere awful. It seems like we need to go through hell to be reminded of the good in us.”
At the time, with the U.S. splitting along party lines during a divisive lead-up to the presidential election, it was easy to see Assbring’s statement as merely referring to political nations. But with the internet—forever the great connector—we all possess multiple citizenships. And, for the most part, it’s a positive. There’s a certain thrill to carving out your unique place on the web, translating your real-world lifestyle, beliefs, preferences, and taste into a unique digital footprint, and finding others who share your interests. It’s allowed us to meet like-minded friends across the world and forge the kind of connections no generation before could dream of.
But in a society that’s hell-bent on individualism as the ultimate currency, it’s also worth reminding everyone that the world is bigger than your color-coordinated Instagram account. The alliance you feel toward your “nation,” no matter how you choose to define that, shouldn’t be bigger than your concern for your fellow humans. Expressing sincere sorrow for someone else’s misfortune should always be delivered without a disclaimer.
And yet, we saw it happen last year with the phrase, “I don’t like Kesha, but…” splayed across social media while the singer-songwriter fought a lengthy battle to free herself from contract with Dr. Luke, who, Kesha alleged, sexually, emotionally, and verbally abused her. As I type this, history is repeating itself, with people offering a "broken" Grande comfort in the same breath that they excuse themselves from any notion of fandom. Another weird reminder for a weird time: In a nightmare this dense and unthinkable, no one cares if you like pop.
Just as the internet brings us together, it also creates a distancing effect (“online disinhibition effect,” in sociologist speak). It’s easy to see our tribe; after all, they’re got the same religious, political, sexual, artistic, or pop culture leanings as we do. But without voice, emotion, or interactions, it becomes harder to achieve empathy for any group in which you don’t see yourself as a member. (Meanwhile, as the citizens of Manchester are proving, loving the stranger in front of you can be breathtakingly easy.)
I’m not excused from this out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon. The terror that has taken place in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, New York was easy to mourn because I had a familiarity with all of them. But, for me, for a long time, the horrors occurring in Aleppo felt like more like a non-specific sadness, until a serendipitous meeting with a Syrian family in Copenhagen last summer. Seeing their sadness, hearing their joys, and even sharing their Middle Eastern sweets was a reminder that being “woke” isn’t a static state. It’s worth digging deeper to ask yourself where your feelings, or lack of them, really come from.
I’ve yet to figure out how to put my newfound empathy to action, other than swallowing the lump in my throat every time my country cuts refugee protections. But I can say, with 100 percent certainty, that none of these people suffering, from any number of our planet’s current crises, are abstract ideas. They’re human. Compassion without restraint or caveats is worth it, even if all we can do is feel their pain. I’m certainly not advocating a future where we’re all reduced to anonymous, beige-colored balls. Differences are beautiful—but not when they’re wielded like a weapon, even on a playing field as banal as Twitter.