Refugees and school assemblies

Picture the scene: it’s Monday morning, you’re twelve years old and you’re in the school assembly. You’re half awake and the youngish RE teacher is banging on about the Sudan, a famine, kids are starving apparently – I feel a bit bad for them, but what can do I about it? There are charities aren’t there? I remember Band Aid. Radio Ga Ga, good song. I’m sure the kid in front of me has farted. God, we’ve got double maths later. These seats don’t half make your bum sweaty. “So, in the Sudan, there’s a terrible famine, people are dying and the fact is…


That’s what he said. 1989, the RE teacher, in front of four or five hundred secondary school children and all the other teachers. Everyone was flabbergasted, including the headmaster and the few Christian Brothers who still worked at the school. After the murmuring had died down, he asked us a question: why did we gasp when he swore, but hardly react at all when he talked about thousands of people dead and dying?

Why is “shit” more shocking than thousands of deaths?

It’s a good question. We get so used to hearing about famines, bombs and beheadings that when read it online or hear about it on the radio or TV, we’re not shocked. We think, or occasionally say, “isn’t it terrible?” and then look at the football news on your phone. Arsenal, haven’t signed anyone? Ridiculous, they’ll be in crisis by Christmas. But if the newsreader finished the piece by saying “… Syria’s a complete clusterfuck” I’m sure we’d sit up and take notice.

If you remember the eighties, and you’re British, you might remember that famous piece on the news by Michael Buerk about the famine in Ethiopia. It made an impact largely because of those awful images of the kids with their distended bellies or those ones who were so weak they couldn’t brush the flies away from their eyes.

But a few years later, we’d all become blasé about, used to it. We had our own problems. I was more concerned about the fact I got 39% on my English exam and my mum was banging on about handwriting to the English teacher at the parents’ evening.


Right now there’s a war in Syria: ISIS are fighting, erm, Assad and the Kurds. And the Iraqis? Possibly Iran, as well. On which side? Beats me. Yeah, terrible… We should try that new craft beer place at the weekend.

Then, you see this:

Twitter has now hidden the photograph unless you click on it. (If you really don’t want to see it, it’s a picture of a young Syrian boy, washed up drowned on a Turkish beach.) It is a photograph which cannot fail (I hope) to appal you. If you’re shocked, I am sorry (to an extent). It hit me hard when I saw it – I’ve got a son who’s not much older. Maybe you aren’t so shocked now though – maybe you’ve seen it dozens of times on Twitter, because everyone keeps retweeting it. Some people, many people even, find it offensive. “I know there’s a terrible war in Syria, I’ve known there is one since it began years ago and I feel for all those people who are suffering because of it – but don’t show me pictures of dead children. PLEASE!” Unfortunately though, I suspect there are other people who don’t know or don’t care.

Is it right to show an image like this? Is it right to retweet it, to make all the people who follow you see it? If several of the people who you follow retweet the same or similar photos, your timeline will fill up with such images for a time. Is it fair to clog people’s computer mobile phone screens with pictures of a dead child? Many people would make the case that showing of a dead body, particularly a child, is too upsetting and, moreover, is an insult to that person’s dignity.

There have also been other seemingly similar cases recently.

Last week, there was the story of the reporter and cameraman in the US who were shot dead live on TV. You may know that the shooter filmed the attack himself and the Sun newspaper chose to run with this particular still from it as their front page.

Is this the same? I certainly found it offensive at the time, but personally I think there is an important difference between the two cases.

First of all, I was appalled and shocked by both photographs. In the case of the shooting, I cannot see the justification for printing it. It effectively shows the last moment of someone’s life and if I was a family member I’m sure that seeing it would have deepened the pain I would have felt. I’ve no wish to investigate in which way, if any, the Sun justified printing the picture, but I can imagine what they would say: essentially it’s newsworthy (i.e. it makes for an arresting front page which will sell newspapers) and it’s out there anyway. Plus you don’t see any blood. But “it sells newspapers” or “the public interest” doesn’t cut it. The people who were murdered are shown in the most undignified way possible (would you like people to gawk at while you die?) and there are things I don’t want to see, thank you very much. It shows a morbid, unhealthy interest in death and I cannot see what benefit it brings to anyone, other than the owner of the newspaper.

But, of course, I don’t want to see pictures of a dead child either. I really don’t. But why’s this case different then? The simple fact is that, by showing it, it may be that other kids won’t have to die like that.

“Rubbish!” I hear you say. “You think sharing a picture of this kid is going to change anything? It changes nothing. You’re a Twitter warrior.”

It has changed something. I wrote this. You’re reading it. If I hadn’t seen that poor kid’s picture today, I’d have spent the afternoon reading Plato (honest) and checking on the football news. Oh, and I wouldn’t have forgotten to go to that class I was supposed to be teaching. There’s no way I’d have been thinking about refugees from Syria.

So what, you might say.

How about this: the original tweet in which I saw the photograph has been retweeted 1400 times and there were many other similar tweets. The picture and other similar ones already seem to have had a political impact. The picture formed part of the top story at the Guardian website this afternoon. I’m pretty sure that this morning, before the photograph had become publicised, the migrant crisis was the second or third story.

Yvette Cooper, candidate for the Labour leadership, has also made a statement today because of these disturbing pictures.

It may now become a more prominent issue within the leadership and the wider political scene.

That’s the political argument, which is perhaps the most important one, as the it’s generally the governments of countries that can get the most done. But let’s take a different view: say this or a similar photograph was seen 100,000 times, for the sake of argument. If 1% of the people who saw it decide to make a donation of 10 euros because of it, that’s 10,000 euros.

I’m guessing that 10,000 euros might help some people to be saved, to not get into that crappy boat, or to get rescued from the water if they do. Just maybe another 5 year-old kid who’s alive now might not die next week or next month. Now that would be well worth a few people, even 100,000 people, being offended.


Last year, I was badgered into making a regular donation to UNHCR as I was trying to go shopping. Bloody timewasters with their clipboards.

Well, I’m now going to increase the amount I’m paying. And I’m going to talk to other people about the whole issue. If I hadn’t seen that photograph, I don’t think I would have done. Because I had plenty of my own worries, like my own kids.

Because, in the end, the truth is I just didn’t give a shit.


Un comentario en “Refugees and school assemblies

  1. Pingback: Persuasion and the limits of debate | Greg Hunt


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