Bring politics back! Some comments on the refugee crisis

During the last months, with bigger or smaller intensity, the “crisis of the refugees” or the “the drama of the refugees” has been the subject of a vast media coverage. Besides the textual coverage of the events, media- in their printed or online version- have also published numerous pictures of the refugees, trying to escape from Syria and coming to Europe. Pictures of people in need or despair, of people struggling alive or being dead have occupied a major part of the newspapers, television or even social media. Among them, the photograph of the 3 year old Aylan, who washed up on the shore in Bodrum, has been a cause for a lively ongoing debate, whether we should publish such strong pictures or not. It is not surprisingly that a photograph of a dead small boy started such a discussion in the media world. Albert Camus noted in the Rebel “it is not the suffering of a child, which is repugnant in itself, but the fact that the suffering is not justified”1. The dead body of a small innocent child will always provoke our strong feelings, sympathy, compassion, anger, sorrow.

Many newspapers, in Denmark and abroad, felt the urge to justify their decision to publish such a photograph, the German newspaper das Bild Zeitung decided to go even a step further in order to show that “one picture, thousand words” and omitted- only for one day- any photographs from its online version. Are we morally allowed to show such photographs? Is this a question about morality, aesthetics, the freedom of speech or journalists responsibility to show the reality “as it is”? For those who decided to publish the photograph, one of the main argument was that we need such pictures in order to raise awareness among the public, to mobilize it in order to do something. As an example of this massive mobilization as a result of a photograph, photojournalists, journalists and essayists often mention the picture of the naked south Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, while she was escaping from a napalm bomb in 1972. This picture changed the way that many Americans- at least- viewed the war in Vietnam2.

The discussion can follow different paths: it can quickly be developed to a question about ethics or even aesthetics, regarding the way that death and human suffering is represented in the media. And then we are caught in a arm- chair academic discussion, while death and suffering continue with the same intensity outside our comfortable living room. Besides that, I find two other problematic points in this discussion. Firstly, we take too easily for granted the power of the pictures to mobilize the public and secondly we are keen on talking about this mobilization without addressing any questions on its character.

When it comes to the first point, yes, the photograph of the young Kim Phuc caused a strong reaction, but we should also keep in mind that this happened in another historical era, when the students at the universities read the writings of Marcuse and not only the dream but the conviction that we can fight for a better society were actual and real. It found place in the aftermath of May 68, in era much politicised in Europe as well as in the USA, with severe protest movements, that wanted to challenge the foundations of our economical model and society. Can we say the same about our era, when students at the universities discuss how the university can be more linked to the job market? I doubt. Susan Sontag underlined the neutral character of the photography, which is outside the intentions of even the photographer himself: … the meaning of the photograph, (which) will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it”3. On the other hand, Judith Butler has argued that the photographs cannot be neutral as each of us interpretate them according to the dominant ideology of society or “upon a certain perceptible reality already been established”4. Following Sontag and Butler, the main point is that it is difficult to take for granted the ahistorical and undisputed power of the photographs or to expect that photographs can automatically bring changes.

But even if we agree that the publication of photographs of death and suffering has managed to raise awareness and cause the reaction of the public, at least in many countries in Europe (Denmark included), still I am tempted to address some questions on the character of the public´s engagement and subsequently on its efficiency.

In many places in Europe, and in Denmark as well, the reaction of the many people in order to relief the pain of the refugees was prompt. Networks of volunteers have been creating in order to help in practice those who are in need. Big demonstrations in many European cities (including Copenhagen) have managed to gather a significant number of people, who wanted to show their solidarity to the refugees. Gatherings of money, clothes, food have been established and people´s reactions have been described as overwhelming. A Danish travel agency has even promised 20kg of extra packaging to those who travelled to Greece, so they could combine their vacation with philanthropy. And I can assure you that such news collected many “likes” on the social media. So, where is the problem, many will ask. This is exactly the problem, I would say, that these ”isolated” pictures create narcissistic emotions of pity and compassion which subsequently lead mostly to actions of philanthropy rather other forms of social action

One reason for such reactions is that- in reality and despite all the discussions about ethics and aesthetics- those pictures are presented in a comprehensible and ethical acceptable way5. The way that these pictures are published- mainly by dehumanizing the offers or by presenting them as random victims of an unavoidable destiny- does not leave much space to address questions on the link between neoliberalism and neo colonialism and the ”refugees crisis”, even if this link has already pointed out exhaustively by sociologists as Bauman. In the era of modernization, the constant quest for economical development creates ”human waste” or wasted lives, the refugees and the migrants6. Our society produces, in a daily base, tones of rubbish and in the same way, people that do not have any place in it. Wars in order to secure or open new markets, political destabilization, exploitation of natural recourses and labour, multinational companies, which influence local policies in order to implement their agenda for their profits, have as a result a huge number of a ”redundant” population.

Moreover, the publication of such photographs do nothing more than reproducing the dominant figure of the ideal moral citizen of our time, the figure of the ”Good Samaritan”, who responds with compassion and pity whenever it is needed7. Can this dominant discourse of pity or compassion be challenged in order to involve a less ethical and a more political aspect? What I see as missing in the debate about the “refugees crisis” is an alternative discourse, a discourse that instead of dehumanizing refugees and presents them as an object or a problem that provokes either our fear, disguise or our compassion and pity, challenges in order to alter the economical and political conditions that create this crisis. By altering this discourse, a new citizen can be born, a citizen who acts not out of compassion but out of the will to change those conditions that bring inequality and war in – at least- some parts of the world.

The photographs of the suffering refugees are published as commodities that are there to be consumed inside the Spectacle8, as Guy Debord would call it. Besides the long articles and the articulated arguments, their publication is painless and harmless, it reproduces our stereotypes and the dominant discourses inside the neo liberal world. They hypnotize, tranquillize us and we behave as “good people” and “ideal moral citizens” but we do not address further questions, we do not demand, we do not disturb. We feel sympathy, compassion, pity for those who are in need, while we are enjoying our dinner in front of the television. Images of dying children, advertisements of cars, cosmetics, charities appear in the same page of a newspaper. Journalists are discussing whether the publishing of those pictures are respect less for the families, if they are ethical right or whether they live up to our aesthetic criteria. European politicians are arguing and agreeing on numbers, “realistic policies” are defended as necessary, celebrities invite us to charity shows in order to collect money for those poor people who are coming to Europe and need our protection. And in the meanwhile, we talk about the “crisis of refugees” as if those people are not the victims but they create this crisis.

The way that many Danes immediately reacted in order not only to help those Syrian refugees, who needed acute help, but also to show their solidarity across borders, is an event that absolutely brings hope. And yes, the picture of the little Alan maybe contributed to this overwhelming response. However, besides showing practically or symbolically our compassion and solidarity and facing the danger of falling into “the banality of goodness”9, this “closer to life altruism of the everyday”10 maybe its about time to think also in another way. In order to defend our solidarity from being another instrument in the neo liberal agenda, we may need to act differently. We may need to bring the political aspect back, to see “the refugees crisis” as a result of a capitalistic agenda, to challenge this agenda by posing social critique. To challenge capitalism not only as a system of production but also as a model of living. Maybe we need a new and alternative productive discourse both in media and in our everyday life and practices which does not turn people to “human waste” in order to help them afterwards but examines the conditions under which people suffer. It is important to understand that this is not just a humanitarian crisis but a political crisis as well. To come with a political message, that can change, at least the way that the European governments act. On a different level and contrary to the neo liberal agenda which promotes egocentricism and concurrence, we can build a new discourse, where we can identify ourselves with the refugees and we help them not out of charity but solidarity. After all, “we all suffer in capitalism”11– lets try this time to find a treatment. And returning to Sontag: “A photograph can´t coerce. It won´t do the moral work for us. But it can start us on the way”12.

1Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, Vintage Books, New York: 1991, 102

3Susan Sontag, Regarding the Suffering of Others, Picador, New York: 2003, 39

4Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Life is Grievable, Brooklyn New York, Verso: 2009, 64

5Lilie Chouliaraki, The Spectarorship of Suffering, London, Sage Publication: 2006, 3

6Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts, London, Polity: 2003

7Lilie Chouliaraki, The Spectarorship of Suffering, 2

8Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Black and Red: 2000, See also: Mikkel Bolt, Jakob Jakobsen og Morten Visby (ed), Billed Politik: At se er at Dræbe, Antipyrine, 2010 and Jakob Jakobsen (red), Billed Politik: Brudstykker af Samtidshistorien betragtet som tragedie, Antipyrine: 2010

9Terry Eagleton, “The Banality of Goodness” in Trouble with Stranges: A Study of Ethics, London, Willey- Blackwell: 2008, 273

10Lilie Chouliaraki, “Improper Distance”: Toward a Critical Account of Solidarity as Irony” in International Journal for Cultural Studies, 06/2011; 14(4): 362-381 See also: Moore, Kerry, Gross, Bernhard and Threadgold, Terry, (eds.), Migrations and the Media. Global crises and the media, Peter Lang, New York, 2012

11Lise Skou and Gritt Uldall- Jensen, Vi lider alle af kapitalisme- men vil ikke behandles, Antipyrine, 2014

12Susan Sontag, “Witnessing” in Don McCullin, London, Cape: 2003, 17