[Content note: discussion of dead children, Syrian refugee crisis – no images]
I haven’t seen a single person genuinely react to the harrowing photo of Aylan Kurdi – or any harrowing photo showing the plight of Syrian refugees – with a shrug or a “who cares?”
That kind of heartless reaction is being loudly performed on some platforms – i.e. the comments sections of news sites or rightwing blogs which regularly stir up anti-immigration, anti-Muslim sentiment for the sake of pageviews. They’re loud, but they’re a minority, and their only true goal is to shock people with how cool and extreme they are.
But when it comes to your average not-very-political friend on Facebook, or the broad audience using the #doublethequota hashtag, the reaction is universally one of sadness, and horror, and a desire to do something.
This has given rise to many a weary cry of “why does it take a picture of a dead child to make you understand how serious this is?”
And it’s lead to a backlash against people who are honestly traumatized, triggered or upset at having those images retweeted constantly, without warning, into their timelines or news feeds. “We must show these photos, because no one cares!” declare the humanitarians, full of righteous indignation. “How dare you try to turn away and refuse to acknowledge what’s happening!”
Yet that’s not what anyone is saying (except in the aforementioned, disingenuous “look how edgy and uncaring I am” comments.) It’s a straw argument. So why the outrage?
Those of us with the privilege of spending a lot of time talking politics online are living in a world of immediate gratification. We want to buy something – we can buy it. If it’s a video game, or an album by our favourite band, we can not only buy it the moment we decide we want it, we can begin downloading it immediately.
And we see the political power that social media can have, even if it’s only watching the race between political candidates to adopt popular hashtags or reference the latest meme. Politicians and political journalists are on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram too, and you can believe they’re just as hooked on the instant feedback and “23 people retweeted this!” validation that we are.
When a story goes viral, we’re used to seeing a swift reaction from our leaders. A condemnation of a terrible crime. A promise to investigate allegations of misdeeds.
But on the Syrian refugee crisis – because there’s a lot more involved politically than simply opening our borders to people in desperate need – we’re not getting the speedy response we want.
We see the photos of Aylan Kurdi and his brother, alive and happy, and think “If I were Prime Minister, I would double our refugee quota immediately!” We see the thousands of people signing petitions and donating goods and money and say to ourselves, “Everyone can see this is the right thing to do. Our leaders must see it too!”
Instead, we get silence. Or if not silence, vague promises of reviews and reassurances that something will be done. “We’re looking at all the options,” John Key says, without even the decency to rule out options like “do nothing”. All the while, those haunting images are stuck in our heads on a tragic loop and it offends our sense of justice that the well-polished politicians aren’t reacting the way any moral human being should.
So we keep sharing those photos in the desperate hope that it will impel action from our leaders, and when others ask us to stop – to at least put a warning at the top, the way all the mainstream media has been doing – we can react cruelly, turning all the frustrated rage we feel about our Prime Minister’s inaction on other people who are already on our side and already understand too well how horrific this situation is.
Powerful images (used with the consent of the people involved) have a long and noble history of focusing people’s attention on a human tragedy, and prompting us to respond. But let’s take care of each other, too, and focus the pressure and denunciations where they belong: on political leaders like John Key who are standing by and twiddling their thumbs waiting for a focus group to tell them what to do, while thousands more Syrian children and their families are at risk.
[Update: Key has now announced he’ll announce a “one-off” intake of “hundreds” of refugees, i.e. the absolute minimum possible response. The focus group results must have come in overnight.]