“ Knowing the families, knowing some of the people who have been killed, do you think that we back here in the West should be sharing those images of mutilated toddlers, of kids quite literally with their heads having been blown off, because while on the one side people argue, actually, yes, it has raised consciousness, it has told the world exactly what this kind of war is, but on the other hand, it’s also, you know, these are some young people’s most treasured items or possessions belongings ever, and they’re being disseminated around the world, sometimes, one would have thought, well, in quite a voyeuristic way?”
-Philip Boucher-Hayes, Liveline, RTE Radio 1, Tuesday 22nd July.
Philip Boucher-Hayes’s question about “voyeurism” echoed an opinion piece in the Guardian the previous day. Columnist Suzanne Moore had diagnosed the sharing of bloody images on Gaza in terms of “semi-aroused outrage”. For her, “such images of war, of obscenity, of the “reality” of what sophisticated weapons do are everywhere. There is no more privacy”. Moreover, “all notions about respect for the dead have been ripped apart by the advent of social media”.
This kind of preoccupation shifts the focus of responsibility away from the perpetrators of death and mayhem, and onto the individuals who might view and distribute images that document it. The main problem for a Western public, then, is no longer its government’s tacit or explicit support for Israel’s bombing campaigns, invasions, annexation and occupations, but the way certain people are pruriently or neurotically disrespecting Palestinians’ right to be murdered in private.
It’s very easy to criticise the use of social media in general, to speak of its users as if a seething crowd given over to the latest sensational trend and incapable of consequential thought; that is why so many people do it. In reality, things are a lot more complex. The sharing and viewing of images as part of a wider set of cognitive and communicative activities; reading, writing, listening, thinking, speaking.
No-one beholds images of mutilated or dead children in isolation and in a void. I don’t mean to say that beholding such images is beneficial or indeed harmful – just that it always occurs in a particular context depending on one’s personal experiences and concerns, and that such considerations are cast aside when things are presented as a matter of the savage online crowd.
Isn’t a bit strange that you should find yourself weighing up your own sense of propriety and respect for Palestinian privacy when Palestinians are being massacred, their hospitals bombed and their homes are being blown to bits by a state your government considers an ally?
When I heard Boucher-Hayes’s question I thought about this image above. It’s from the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps people at the time seized on the image and thought it was showing grave disrespect for the victims of war. Maybe they thought it was a violation of the family’s privacy. Maybe they thought that the government ministry that created the image was borne by some kind of sexual neurosis or some kind of moral superiority complex. Maybe it was seeking to appeal to the voyeuristic tendencies of the international public.
Because those are the really important questions, right? What really matters isn’t about a just, peaceful and democratic future threatened by the racism of states that bomb civilian populations, including hospitals. It isn’t about seeking accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It isn’t about subjecting such states to social, political and economic isolation. It isn’t about any kind of active citizenship or international solidarity. It isn’t about seeing other people’s children as if they were your children, your family. It’s about onlookers delving into their unconscious, turning the spotlight on themselves, and making themselves respectable again. How, after all, can we expect public opinion to count for anything when it can’t keep its neuroses in check?