A cursory glance at a range of on-line media highlights the ways in which individuals create – or curate, to borrow from some media sources – a response to this week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels. The choice of images, words, slogans, and even colours point to interesting patterns in the ways in which we view ourselves.
There is one school of thought that this kind of on-line response is a bit lazy and derivative, but for those interested in how individuals, communities, and groups respond to events and simultaneoulsy shape their own identities, Instagram offers an interesting insight into how Belgium – as an entity – is viewed. The kinds of resources that Instagram users and others draw on are linguistic – in that they often use language – and visual, including icons that resonate as particularly Belgian.
The use of colours is particularly striking, and identity is, at moments of heightened emotions (such as terrorist outrages), clearly linked to national flags. The use of black, yellow, and red to connote Belgium or ‘Belgianness’ was quickly adopted. Interestingly, this elides the distinction made in Belgium between Flemish- and French-speakers, but I’ll return to language choice in a moment. The black-yellow-red tricolore chimes as explicitly ‘Belgian’, in the way that blue-white-red meant France or French after the attacks in Paris in November 2015. French cartoonist Plantu explicitly draws on both tricolores to demonstrate sympathy between France and Belgium, but articulated as the French and Belgian peoples, rather than as two nation States. French authorities, and it would be interesting to find out who exactly takes this decision, illuminated the Eiffel Tower in black-yellow-red. This appropriation of colours is not the preserve of the West (however unweildy and helpful that is as a term), and in a development worthy of satirical websites, discussion and outrage has emerged over a purported ISIS on-line poll asking supporters to vote for the next colours to light up the Eiffel Tower.
Monuments and statues are also co-opted to respond to the attacks in Belgium, most notably the Manneken Pis, the seventeenth-century sculpture of a boy urinating into a fountain in Brussels’ city centre. The act of urinating onto something is a widely understood trope or visual device for expressing contempt, and satirists play with the icon of the statue to have him pissing on guns, explosives, and even hooded ‘terrorists’.
Finally, language is drawn into the response to terrorism. The popular ‘Je suis…’ motif has a second dimension in linguistically-divided Belgium. ‘Je suis Bruxelles’ is also expressed in Flemish – ‘Ik ben Brussel’ – thereby acknowledging the officially mandated bilingual nature of the Brussels capital region. Both expressions appear in social media, and if we were to take a quantitative approach to trying to understand the on-line response, we might think that French is much more ‘popular’ (however we choose to understand that) than Flemish, with currently 920 posts on Instagram for #ikbenbrussel in comparison with a staggering 30,253 posts for its French counterpart, #jesuisbruxelles. It’s here that we need to be cautious about reading very much into this kind of quantitative data. I don’t think that this means that French is more widespread / important / significant than Flemish amongst Instagram users. It’s clear that the ‘Je suis…’ slogan, created in response to the gun attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie-Hebdo, has wide currency – so wide, in fact, that it is now subverted to show solidarity with a range of causes. To this end, I would argue that ‘Je suis…’ has ceased to be French in the sense that it is a French-language expression; it has transcended the boundaries of one language to exist and be used quite happily in others. What is more interesting to note is that, in a country where language choice is a very clear act of identification with one region and not another, a counterpart has emerged that is paradoxically inclusive and exclusive. In other words, a ‘translation’ of a sign of solidarity at the same time highlights linguistic division.