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The drowned Syrian boy photo is viral social media at its most hollow and hypocritical

Men in Turkey carry the coffins of Syrian refugees, including Aylan Kurdi, who died en route to Europe.
Men in Turkey carry the coffins of Syrian refugees, including Aylan Kurdi, who died en route to Europe.
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty

Looking at the same photo that everyone is looking at this week, of a young Syrian refugee boy whose body had washed up on a Turkish beach, and reading about the boy's brief and difficult life, I found myself torn between two conflicting reactions. On the one hand, I was saddened by the needless death of this young child, and outraged by the many factors that contributed to it: the Syrian war, European hostility to migration, and the world's callous indifference to the ever-worsening refugee crisis. Those factors are important, so the photograph's ability to call the world's attention to them makes it a powerful journalistic tool.

But I am also uncomfortable with the way those images have been converted into just another piece of viral currency. There is a line between compassion and voyeurism. And as that photo was shared and retweeted over and over again, converted into listicles and social-friendly packages, it felt more and more like the latter.

I am reminded of a 2012 article by the novelist Teju Cole, "The White-Savior Industrial Complex," responding to what was the social media caring experience of that moment, a web video called "Kony 2012" that asked the world to combat Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony by "making him go viral."

Cole wrote about the cycle of internet outrage and compassion that, often, ends up doing little more than providing entertainment and validation for Western audiences. Those audiences, rather than being compelled to ask themselves whether they had a hand in the faraway tragedy they are sharing to Facebook, get to pat themselves on the back for being part of the solution.

But social media voyeurism is no solution. It doesn't help that child, or others like him. It just exploits his tragic death as a source of maudlin but oh-so-shareable emotional thrills.

The line between compassion and voyeurism

How the Daily Mail covers refugees when they are not the subject of a viral photo, left; at right, when they are.

Syrian refugee children have been dying in the Mediterranean for some time now. More than 2,000 migrants have died just this year making the sea crossing, and 3,279 died last year. Many of them are Syrian: Half of that country's population has been displaced, with 4 million fleeing the country as refugees since the war began in 2011. Syrian children die routinely: crossing the Mediterranean, in overcrowded and underfunded refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey, and in Syria itself.

That is of course not to say that people are forbidden from caring about one Syrian child unless they have spent the last four years doing nothing but caring about all Syrian children. And in fact, it is good and welcome that so many people have been shocked into seeing and caring about this crisis by this photo, which is after all more relatable and immediate than any chart or NGO report could be.

The shock value of the photo is part of that power, but it is also part of what makes the photo a potential object of voyeurism instead of compassion. You can already see this in the way the British tabloids, which have for years been overtly hostile to refugees, have shamelessly plastered the image across their front pages.

On any other day, those front pages would carry headlines scaremongering about the supposed refugee threat, and calling for even harsher policies to keep refugees out and thus contribute to deaths like the one in this very photo. That these same tabloids are today urging readers to weep over a photo of a single dead refugee is not just hypocritical; it shows the degree to which, for many, these photos are nothing more than an opportunity to wallow in some feelings. They're little more than a soap opera melodrama that happens to be real.

Western actions on refugees speak louder than words

Calais migrants

Migrants walk towards the port of Calais in northern France. (PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

But this is not just a problem of British tabloids. Those outlets, though loathsome, are in many ways just expressing an extreme version of the overwhelming sentiment among Western countries: that a single dead refugee child is a tragedy, but a million suffering refugees are a threat. Western voters have made clear to their leaders time and again that they want to keep refugees out, even if it means most of those refugees will die.

This is why the UK has admitted only 216 Syrian refugees, and why 67 percent of British voters — some number of whom are probably today sharing this photo to Facebook — say they support sending the British Army to the French town of Calais to control the migrants there who wish to cross into the UK. It's why most European countries are refusing to accept their proportional burden of the refugees who land at Greece and Italy, why European governments have cut support for Mediterranean search and rescue missions. It's why the US, bowing to public fear of terrorism, has accepted only a few hundred Syrian refugees.

The question is whether that emotional energy will go toward addressing the crisis — which means asking some difficult questions about Western responsibility — or merely become yet another social media-driven "big emotional experience that validates privilege." Will it be like the 1972 photo of a Vietnamese girl running for her life from a napalm explosion, which helped galvanize US public opinion against the war, or just another Cecil the lion, an internet experience that we can all participate in before we go on to the next thing?

What this photo demands of us and why we don't want to do it

Migrants disembark from a bus near Athens, Greece (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

Migrants disembark from a bus near Athens, Greece. (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

Maybe I'm being unfairly cynical; maybe the response to this photo is earnest enough that Western voters are really ready to change the policies that help contribute to these deaths. But what may not necessarily be obvious is that changing these policies will require people to do some things they have resisted doing, and quite forcefully, for generations.

Really helping refugees, at a time of global crisis when millions of people are in desperate need of assistance, requires taking in pretty substantial numbers of people who might look different from you and who might speak a different language. It means being okay with the idea that you might see Syrian people on a regular basis, and they might be veiled, and they might want to build a mosque in your neighborhood so they can practice their religion. You will have to modify, ever so slightly, your vision of what your town and neighborhood look like, and widen the definition of your community's culture. And this is all in addition to the short-term costs of resettlement programs, which, in a crisis of this magnitude, could be substantial.

Speaking for myself, I am of the opinion that these are all good things; that migration is a gift that enriches us all, culturally as well as economically. But that is not the prevailing attitude among Westerners, for whom nativism — look at Donald Trump, look at the rise of right-wing parties across Europe — is on the rise, and is an increasingly powerful political force. That Western anti-migrant sentiment, and the anti-refugee policies that we as Western voters demand, are embedded in every inch of that photo, whether you see it or not.

If you actually want to help Syrian refugee children like the little boy in the viral photo, it's not enough to care about this single dead child; you have to care about living refugee kids too, and in fact you also have to care about living refugee adults. If the image of the Syrian refugee boy made you feel something, that's great, but it only matters for making an actual difference in the world if you can apply those feelings to living refugees as well — and, crucially, to yourself.

If we want Syrian children to stop dying in the Mediterranean and washing up on Turkish beaches, we have to start with examining ourselves, our sense of our own cultural identities, and why we feel it's so important to exclude foreign refugees in order to protect those identities. That's a really difficult thing to do.

But unless we do it, then our treatment of this photo will have been more about extracting a "big emotional experience" than about really caring.