Jul 24, 2014

Razer’s Class Warfare: tweeting pictures of dead Palestinian babies helps no one but you

In an age of spectacular oversupply of both images and political perspectives, gore has lost its value. Sharing graphic images from the Gaza conflict turns private moments of death and grief into horror pornography.

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

Perhaps you are troubled by the atrocity enacted on the people of Palestine since 1948. Perhaps you are distressed by what you see as Israel’s very asymmetric “justice”. Perhaps you believe that a colony whose wealth and existence is predicated on the displacement or apartheid of millions has no right to call itself a democracy. If so, there are a number of things you could consider doing to declare and reify your support. You could contact the Foreign Minister and ask her for a statement about our nation's involvement with Israel. You could donate to the relief efforts of the Red Cross or Red Crescent. You could consider the value of promoting divestment and boycott or you could read the broad range of academic opinion that has trended in recent years away from the Western Orientalist view of Israel as the Middle East’s most reasonable actor. Or, you could just keep uploading pictures of dead or dying Palestinian children. This is a great way to disrespect the dead, turn war into a sort of compassion pornography spectacle and prove to your Facebook friends just where you stand. Because the lurid and bloody display of your empathy, after all, is as urgent as the matter of a one- or two-state solution. As social and traditional media continue to merge into a single Kleenex whose soggy mass serves the tears of the West and douses the tissue of political interpretation, we see a thousand “share-able” images of kids in various stages of gruesome death. The Independent is just one of many media organisations to offer graphic portrayals of very young Palestinian refugees bleeding, screaming and gasping for their last breath. Millions of Facebook status updates affirm and reproduce the importance of these images and how much they impact the user. Twitter tells us how bad it’s feeling, and one user cried “Every time I close my eyes I see the innocent children of Palestine running, I hear them scream.” In other words, it’s not just the pain of children in Gaza that’s the problem. It’s our own. Even if we tend, as I do, to the emerging dominant view of international relations and believe that these asymmetric battles and the cold Israeli hostilities that engender them must be resolved, there is not only no ethical rationale to reproduce  pictures of the private deaths of Palestinian babies, but there is no pressing evidence that the empathy they generate is of any great use.
"We need to engage with history deeply. Not our emotions."
There was a time where we were not yet inured to images of the brutalisation of children in war. There was, perhaps, a time when their use could be morally justified. When photographer Nick Ut captured the flight of a burned nine-year-old girl from South Vietnamese attack in 1972, the image served as a smoking gun in a very different world. The picture of the woman we would come to know as children’s advocate Kim Phuc even jolted Nixon, who was prompted to suggest that it had been “fixed”. Such, then, was the power of photojournalism. Now in an age of spectacular oversupply of both images and political perspectives, the gore loses its value. This is not for a minute to suggest that many of the pictures by embedded and citizen journalists in Gaza do not depict real atrocity. It is, however, to suggest that the impact of the “real” is diminished by reproduction. And it is also diminished by an occasionally false reproduction of the real. An image, for example, of healthy Israeli children writing “From Israel With Love” on missiles was shared recently on social media as evidence of the state’s brutal ideology. As it turned out, the image was taken from a 2006 conflict and the missiles were destined for Palestinian children long since dead. But the absolutist rationale for the dissemination of this false image is identical to the rationale of real images of Palestinian fatalities. That is: if it helps the Palestinian cause,  it must be a good thing. That it helps anyone at all is in doubt. It is true that this week, the Palestinian people are winning the social media battle if not the battle for the long-overdue return of their homeland. It is also true that there is some merit in the idea that “people power”, if scrupulously organised, can demand action from a super power. What is neither true nor in any way verifiable is that an emotional reaction to a pornographic image of atrocity -- which US President Barack Obama might very well determine, like Nixon, is “fixed” -- does anything but serve the needs of a world hungry for high passion. It is generally held that compassion for the individual, as depicted in these awful images, will heal the world. The view that holds that the intimate ministrations of a Mother Teresa can do anything but serve an individual’s need to serve is profoundly ahistorical. Crying for Palestinian babies comes not only at the expense of the dignity of Palestinian babies but at the understanding of the illegitimate foundation of the state of Israel that real social change demands. To think, in this instant, that Israel is populated by “baddies” is not enough. Well, it’s not enough unless you think that having a public moment of deep private feeling suffices to change anything but your mood. Evil, as we know, is banal. But so, for that matter, is good. It is the case now as it has always been. What feels like a deep engagement with humanity might serve us but what will really serve the people of Palestine is a deep engagement with their extraordinary history. To be clear, I am not suggesting that I have a working knowledge of the Balfour Declaration. I would not dare suggest a solution to a lopsided conflict of which my knowledge is scant -- only sufficient to know that I do not want my nation to condone the illegal actions of Israel. What I am suggesting is that we need to engage with history deeply. Not our emotions. That empathy gets us anywhere is deeply in doubt.

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42 thoughts on “Razer’s Class Warfare: tweeting pictures of dead Palestinian babies helps no one but you

  1. Bento

    If there were no empathy, we would all be dead. Gotta have it. Gotta show it.

    Better, I feel, to offer more encouragement of the positive next steps that one could take (as you do very well in your article) rather than to deride people’s attempts, however misguided they may be, to highlight some bad in the world.

  2. Will

    Reverential respect for the dead is an ontologically anomalous attitude for a Marxist concerned with material power relations. The identity politics you spurn is predicated on symbols no less emotionally potent, yet equally arbitrary under a materialist ontology, yet you reject one emphatically and assert the other.

  3. Dianne Longson

    Razor your article today is disappointing. Further it is based on a false premise. You assume that those who post on social media sites pictures of dead Palestinian children do nothing else to support this country or its people. Frankly that’s a pretty facile and arrogant assumption. You have no clue what these people do away from FB or Twitter. Talk about an unsubstantiated judgment. A basic mistake! I personally expect more from you and your writing.
    Also you say you find the pictures disrespectful of the dead. Really! On what basis? I find the fact that Israelis are killing children with impunity a far greater wrong and think that showing the pictures goes some way to exposing the activities of an oppressive and tyrannical regime.

  4. Helen Razer

    I am not so much questioning the motives as the outcomes, Dianne.
    This piece mentions only in passing the disrespect to the dead. It is chiefly and overtly about questioning the usefulness of a public compassion. To read it as diminishing the plight of the Palestinian people is a bit wilful. To read it as out-and-out revulsion for the people who might care as privately as they do conspicuously again is a purposeful misreading.
    I do not believe these images function. I think this is obvious in the piece.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    Something I find even more repulsive than shots of butchered MEN, WOMEN, CHILDREN, is the relentless whipping up of their readers into a sort of catatonic blood lust. Even the ABC is guilty of this. On the day this terrible thing happened it was not possible-hour after hour-to switch on the station without yet another drenching of blood.

    I imagine the hypothesis behind the MSM is to help people to grieve. This is a load of cods. All it is is harkening back to the Roman Empire and their brutal circuses. The MSM panders-with success-to the very lowest of man’s barbarisms.

  6. Liz Connor

    For a balanced account I think we should include concern about the use of equally ‘heartrending’ images of the toys and personal belongings of children killed in the downing of MH 17. The mainstream media use these images relating to child victims of violent conflict expressly for their personal impact, and social media merely reflect that impact.

  7. Nevil Kingston-Brown

    Yet another article from Helen about how her generation’s left wing media activism was so much better than the current generation’s left wing media activism. Why isn’t she writing for The Australian?

  8. Helen Razer

    It was no such thing, Nevil. I don’t regard the activism of the nineties as much chop at all and nowhere in this article do I suggest that a previous kind of activism was preferable.
    I simply say that graphic images of death, ethics of their depiction notwithstanding, better serves the person who is sharing them than the persons depicted. This is a contemporary practice which addresses, in the case of Palestine, a 60 year old problem. Clearly, no solutions of western solidarity have worked well in the past and where you would get this idea beyond your own imagining is a mystery.
    If you would like to defend the sharing of images of graphic brutality enacted on children, please be my guest. Otherwise, try not to make stuff up based on a dislike of me and the ludicrous assessment that I am right wing.

  9. Buddy

    I had an image such as your describing come through my feed and I’m generally not a person who finds this necessary or easy to deal with, but on this day I made a point of looking, not moving on. I reflected deeply on this young boy and in the days since it has shaped conversations both in social media and in my private and professional life. That image was a horrifying reminder that these are real children, real deaths and I think all too often these deaths are abstract.. Less meaningful. I don’t mean them to be, it’s a simple consequence of lining in a world saturated by news. And on that day I was joted back into truth. War kills wonderful people and destroys families and it could just as essay be my beautiful grandson. So I feel profoundly touched by it and it has changed something important in me and pressed me to be more assertive and more active in denouncing war and seeking peace

  10. Mark out West

    Is it really worth the time and effort to write this piece, do you know the people who posted and their reasoning. Could it be a desperate call for justice for the victim from a relative/interested party who perceives no justice in these events and wonder why West predominately see the Jews as the victims. Who are constantly reminded that the Jews we the recipients of the most abysmal murdering while the world stood back and who are now the murderers.

    Maybe an article about how a people who’s graphic history is steep in isolation and abuse can become the abuser. This would be time well spent cause this is just a fluff piece.

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