How did one photo change the heart of a nation?

Alan Kurdi

How did one photo change the heart of a nation? I’ve blogged before about how hate speech can switch off our ability to feel empathy. Whether it is immigrants, the unemployed or the disabled, for years we have been subject to hate speech from politicians and media describing them as scroungers abusing the system. Immigrants are health tourists abusing the hard pressed NHS and taking jobs from British people.

It’s not about logical argument, immigrants contribute more to the economy and the NHS than they get; they create more jobs. Hate speech works on a much deeper level, changing the very way our brains work, switching off our ability to feel empathy. We may be a decent and compassionate people in every other way, our brains will respond to immigrants like a psychopath does. We feel no empathy or compassion towards them, worse, we are unaware we are feeling no compassion, and agree the harsh measure to deal with the problem. They have been dehumanised. What can humanise them again, or rather what can restore our humanity towards them?

We just have to see the refugees as human beings, people like us, but in a desperate situation fleeing for the lives, trying to protect their families. We aren’t real psychopaths, if their stories can get through to us the spell can be broken. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels, to feel their pain; compassion is knowing we have to do something about it. We see people like us in terrible situations and know we have to do something to help

It is what lies behind Jesus’ command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. It asks how would we want to be treated if we were in the same situation. Not just compassion for people in our own tribe and community either, Jesus illustrated loving our neighbour with the story of a despised foreigner, a Samaritan reaching out in compassion to a Jew bleeding and dying on the Jericho road. Luke 10:33 NET But a Samaritan who was traveling came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to treat foreigners and immigrants with compassion too, and appealed to their empathy and compassion. Exodus 23:9 NIV …you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.

For some time we have had two stories playing out in the media, Cameron’s ‘swarms’ at our borders, and Songs of Praise with people like us in need of our help. But it was the photograph of three year old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach that seems to have changed everything. Why did this one picture make such a difference? We have seen drowned bodies of refugees before. Perhaps because it is a dead child. It was a photograph of a nine year old girl, fleeing when her village had just been napalmed, that turned public opinion against the Vietnam War.

The photograph of Alan Kurdi is even more powerful, perhaps it needs to be because we see so much horror and death on TV. But little Alan looks as though he has just fallen asleep, he look like one of our own children as toddlers when they’d just fallen asleep…

The battle for compassion isn’t over, the politicians and papers that preached their hate will go back to preaching hate again. We mustn’t let them win. We mustn’t let them take our very humanity.

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One thought on “How did one photo change the heart of a nation?

  1. Well said. A waking-up moment in the narrative of fear which has been the dominant one for so long.

    My own thoughts yesterday:

    Today our media has united to show heart-wrenching photos of a single child.

    Now imagine that ten feet beyond his body is another. Another ten feet beyond that. Another ten feet beyond that. And another and another and another as far as the eye can see. Imagine one lifeless body after another every ten feet for five miles.

    That’s this year so far.

    The west needs to ask how bad things need to be at home before people will take that kind of risk…and how we’re ok with that being the world where other people live.

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