In a stirring dirge for victims of a lynching, Billie Holliday mourns the strange fruit borne by Southern trees. “Blood on the leaves, and blood at the roots” she laments, “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.”
Centuries of desperation, frustration, and anger over racial crimes and injustices are distilled into Nina Simone’s evocative cover of the song, in which a raw vocal pours over the simple strains of three chords: A hollowed out musical structure that echoes the moral vacuum in which lynching became common in America’s South. “Strange Fruit” reveals perfectly the true power of art. By stripping superfluity and presenting the ugly, what remains is devastating to the core and impossible to deny.
So too are the jarring pictures of the bodies of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi and his five-year-old brother Galip, who were found last week on the Turkish coast. In a series of disturbing pictures, photographer Nilufer Demir captured the moment the bodies of the two boys and their mother, Rehan—all Syrian refugees fleeing the devastation in Kobani by crossing the Mediterranean Sea on a flimsy boat—washed onto the shore. The image of Aylan’s lifeless form in particular has sparked public conversations about whether photos of a child should be taken and shared without the consent of their guardians; whether sharing these photographs is cruel voyeurism; and what it says about the state of humanity that a genuine conversation on intervening in the conflict in Syria can only be had once the public is confronted by a waterlogged and lifeless infant body.
Our interactions with the pictures raise critical questions about the role of empathy in contemporary society. Although there has been some academic treatment of the capacity of humans to relate and respond to the circumstances of others, only in dire moments like these does there seem to be collective reflection on where empathy as a moral value fits into our societies. After all, Aylan’s unnecessary death isn’t just about refugees or conflict. It is also about borders, visas, regional integration, and how these man-made structures modify the values around which our societies are built.
THE STATE AND COLLECTIVE MORALITY
The contemporary state has had a significant impact on the moral calculations of individuals: Simply put, being a citizen of a particular country changes how individuals order their individual and collective moral values. We invent states because we believe that it is better, safer, to live as a collective rather than as individuals. Once we agree to enter political organizations, we then go through the painful process of making laws—that is, deciding what values should define or guide our society. Along the way, groups hit key decision points, moments at which an individual value and a societal value collide, and the group has to decide which one will triumph. Together, such rites determine what individuals stand for independently of what they claim to stand for.
Thus many Americans would agree with “thou shall not kill” as a categorical imperative, a universally binding moral value from which no deviation should be possible. But many Americans would also agree that it is justifiable to use the U.S. military to kill soldiers from countries that are threatening the United States’ well-being. The clash of values here—the individual prohibition on killing versus the collective obligation to defend the state at all costs—forces a caveat, and a new value is born: “thou shall not kill except in defence of the state.”
It’s worth emphasising that the modern state structure has always struggled to deal with refugees and migrants on two levels. For one, there is the matter of the point at which individuals should be allowed to exit their own state if the state has become a major threat to their well-being. In addition, there is the question of whether the international community should help individuals to exit such states or prevent it.
Assad has killed more Syrian children than the Mediterranean Sea—by gassing them, bombing them, and starving them to death. The families who leave do so for self-preservation, but very few countries take them in. Canada denied the Kurdis refugee status. Europe might have seemed like a possible option, but if they had survived the crossing, they would only have been met with the same troubles as other refugees in Hungary, Macedonia, and Serbia. And even if they survived that, they would face the uncertainty of whether the country they stayed in would let them do so indefinitely. The fact that refugees fled the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the last 20 years on foot rather than being airlifted out affirms that the system recognizes that sometimes individuals need to flee their home state, but that it doesn’t like it when they do.
Refugees and migrants compel the states in which they seek safety to take an audit of their values, a reexamination and re-ordering of their guiding principles. Many European governments have declared that they will not accept more refugees and migrants; they have their own populations to tend to. Yet the sheer number of people leaving Syria demands a humanitarian response; for some groups, empathy and solidarity are more important values than consistency in immigration law.
In other words, the tragedy of the Kurdis and the 2,000 other people who have died in the Mediterranean this year is doing something that five years of advocacy by humanitarians has failed to do: It is forcing a value audit in Europe and beyond. Although European countries have embraced the idea that there is such a thing as a singular European culture, and that it must be preserved, they are forced to answer what they want to do when other human lives are at stake.
EMPATHY AND HUMANITARIAN PRACTICE
The Kurdis’ sad tale also raises questions for humanitarian practice, the most obvious being: Should we now use more sensational images for humanitarian advocacy? It is hard to deny that Aylan’s picture accomplished more in two days—in mobilizing resources, prompting policy change, and shining a light on the human cost of the Syrian war—than four years of advocacy managed to do. But it is also worth remembering the “CNN effect,” in which continued exposure to macabre images desensitizes audiences to such imagery in the long run, which in turn, makes the work of raising awareness more difficult.
The images also represent some uncomfortable power dynamics. Neither Aylan nor his parents had any say in the way in which his body has been used. We deliberately took their images and wove them into our own advocacy narratives without their consent. Of course, anyone could claim that doing so was necessary and ultimately helpful to the broader work of advocating for Syrian refugees. But that doesn’t change the underlying facts. There is a real unevenness in the way we are able to use the bodies of children of color and the bodies of a white Western children. In the United Kingdom, television stations blur or pixellate images of European children in news reports, yet routinely screen advertisements for charitable organisations featuring faces of hungry African or Asian children.
Indeed, humanitarianism is not immune to the dynamics of racial and economic privilege that exist in broader society. There is a significant body of work examining the intersections between race and humanitarianism. In their paper “Fear and Loathing in Haiti,” the researchers Beverley Mullings, Marion Werner, and LindaPeakedeconstruct the impact of racialized fear (fear of black people rioting) on the humanitarian response in Haiti. Specifically, Heike Härting discusses the ways in which humanitarians use black and brown bodies in the course of their advocacy in the paper “Global Humanitarianism, Race, and the Spectacle of the African Corpse in Current Western Representations of the Rwandan Genocide.”
We can only freely share Aylan’s image because it is a picture of the body of the other. When a charity uses a picture of a juvenile victim of war or crisis without parental consent especially for the purposes of fundraising, they sell that child’s body. We, who use and redistribute these images, are complicit in the underlying transaction. We individually need to decide if we’re okay with that.
These are ethical issues that Aylan’s body raises for humanitarian community. And then there’s the rest of us.
The process of rebuilding society begins with swimming into this ugliness that we wilfully created by choosing not to engage. The Syrian war has been raging for over four years. It is among the most devastating conflicts—by numbers killed, methods used, numbers displaced, and so on—of the modern era. Aylan is one of thousands of Syrian children who have died as a direct consequence of the Syrian war. Before his death, he was one of ten thousands displaced. Yet it took this photograph to push us into action. It would be easy enough to resort to the old “the media isn’t talking about crisis X” trope. But we don’t need the media to put a story on the front page in order to pay attention to it; we all have agency and we can choose to pay attention to whatever issue we want. In this case, we didn’t choose to prioritize the other victims of the Syrian conflict.
It comes down to empathy. It might be that our individualist economies have edged out empathy and other communitarian values in favour of self-preservation and its corollaries, or that we are just so inundated with bad news that it is impossible to prioritise. Either way, the threshold should ideally be lower than the needless death of a toddler.
THE POWER OF ART
Overall, the last few days have been a lesson in the power of photography. Unlike the volumes of reports on conflict gathering dust in NGO offices around the world, art seems to connect better with whatever it is inside us that makes us all human. Art has a direct line to our empathy centre. It goes there and stays there in a way that words can’t. But art alone cannot sustain the weight of dealing with conflict. It moves us into action but eventually, the wound scabs over and we become less capable of empathy. So art as advocacy needs to be used carefully. Shock tactics cannot become the norm.
Nina Simone said in an interview that “Strange Fruit” deals with the ugliness of racial injustice; “ugly in the sense that it tears at the guts of what white people have done to black people in my country.” Similarly, Demir’s photographs of Aylan and Galip deals with the ugliness of war. It tears at the guts of collective apathy. It reminds us that war happens to people—that behind every statistic is a name, a face, and a family. The process of rebuilding society begins with swimming into this ugliness that we wilfully created by choosing not to engage. We shouldn’t need photographs of dead toddlers be reminded of this; we need to ask tougher questions about why we live in a world that does.