Monday 22 July 2019

This time we need more than just hashtag sentiment

There is no simple answer to the migrant crisis and online empathy on its own cures nothing, says Brendan O'Connor

Bob Geldof
Bob Geldof
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Not for the first time Bob Geldof put it up to us all on Friday morning. Speaking to his old mucker Dave Fanning, Geldof cut through a lot of the crap and announced that he is willing to take in some refugees into his homes: "I'm lucky," he said, "I've a place in Kent and a flat in London. Me and Jeanne would be prepared to take three families immediately in our place in Kent and a family in our flat in London, immediately, and put them up until such time as they can get going and get a purchase on their future."

Geldof's pronouncement made a lot of people slightly uncomfortable. Because a lot of people thought that all you had to do was care, and be moved by that picture, and demand that the Government does more.

We are all used to hashtag sentiment at this stage. It whips up based on an image or a story that goes viral on the internet. Eventually it will make it to mainstream media and websites, with headlines like "You won't believe this heartbreaking story/The picture every mother has to look at/The most poignant video you will ever watch". You know the drill. It will often involve children or old people or somebody with a disability. And they will often be demonstrating some kind of cuteness, poignancy or courage - or bravery as the last one is known on the internet. Everyone is brave these days.

People with disabilities are always brave. Mums are brave. Old people are brave. Children are brave. Geriatric, wheelchair-bound mum of two being surprised with a birthday cake and getting up and walking would be the ultimate viral sensation. Bravery, twee-ness and poignancy all in one.

In general, this kind of stuff is cheap emotional porn. It gives us some kind of sentimental jollies for a minute and then we pass it on to more people, feeling vaguely good about ourselves for being moved, and for caring, and for thinking these people are brave. And we post comments like "So Brave xx" or "My heart breaks for you babes. Best of luck". Bravery and heartbreak are two of the most devalued words in our culture these days.

There is an air of condescension about this stuff too. Ah look at the cute granny, look at the cute handicapped person, look at the cute baby. Awwww.

And then we all get on with our day. Having had a little moment, and feeling all warm and smug inside because we are good people. We care.

The image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi shocked everyone into suddenly caring about the migrant crisis. You could argue that this is not altogether healthy. Why should we need to see a dead toddler face down in the sand to shock us into caring? And wasn't there something emotionally pornographic about it, about how we looked and kept looking? But then, does it really matter? Whatever gets people to care. And while you could be uncomfortable too about the fact that the world's media then scrambled for the interview with Aylan's father, and everyone got their emotional rocks off over it too; again; at least it was a hook, to get people caring.

And care they did. There were demands that something should be done about it. And we asked how politicians could let this happen. And people professed to have their hearts broken by the whole thing, as they suddenly realised that this 'swarm', these 'hordes', are humans, with stories, and some of them are toddlers just like our own toddlers. It made that magical bridge between the refugees and us, the bridge we call empathy, where we suddenly put ourselves in their shoes for a minute and imagine what it is like to be them.

We felt good too because this proved that we were, once again, ahead of our politicians when it comes to caring about these things. We had the monopoly on compassion. And look at Enda Kenny. Being vague about numbers and refusing to make a proper commitment. How dare he? Had he not seen the picture? Did it not break his heart enough? Is he not as compassionate as the rest of us?

The picture of Aylan probably has more staying power than most of the outrages that whoosh up on the internet. It is certainly more than a one-day wonder. But the last thing you would wish for Aylan and others like him is that they would become a hashtag, a bringbackourgirls. Because as much as social media can mobilise public pressure, and as much as one powerful story can make an issue real for people, hashtags don't last, and things that swoosh up on the internet tend to swoosh back down very quickly. They are like a cyber Mexican wave that runs out of steam very quickly.

And then Geldof broke all the rules. By bringing it back into the realm of the real world and by suggesting that if we really are heartbroken we should do something about it. Not only that, Geldof was suggesting that we should do something that would actually put ourselves out a bit. So we've had our tears and our little emotional shudder on the internet, now what are we going to do?

Geldof, you see, doesn't accept the rules, the rules that state that when you are moved by something these days, it is enough to express how deeply moved you are, and then to demand that something be done.

So who is offering to take in some refugees? At the time of writing a commendable 6,000 people in Ireland had signed up to offer a bed to a refugee. The rest of us will probably make the usual excuses to ourselves and to others. It's easy for Geldof isn't it, with all his property? And our house is full anyway, and we've got enough going on in my own house with the kids and whatever. And anyway we don't have any spare room.

And underneath this there is another layer of more private excuses. You wouldn't know who you'd be taking into your house. And how do we know they're not terrorists? And what do you do with them after a few weeks when they are still there and they are annoying you.

These fears represent the worst part of the Irish psyche, that part that is afraid of change, the part that likes the country to be nice and homogeneous and familiar. The part that worries that there will be fewer jobs and houses for Irish people if all these foreigners come in. It is a part of our psyche that we do not officially acknowledge or discuss much.

So we end up with a situation where, on one hand, we have this fairy-tale sentimentality about these refugees, where we reduce them to digestible and, in some sick way, "cute" photogenic tragedies. And on the other we have all these reservations we dare not speak of. And in the middle, you have our leaders, who are being castigated for not going along with government-by-viral-image, and who are probably slightly taken aback at this sudden mood of openness among the Irish.

Our politicians are probably mindful too of the truth spoken by Bob Geldof on Friday: "I've known and you've known and everyone has known that the bollocks we talk about our values are complete nonsense. Once it comes home to roost we deny those values."

While everyone is broken- hearted about the refugees right now, we are not a country that has traditionally seen the great value of inward migration and diversity - this despite the fact that we have been a great migration nation ourselves and we have expected a welcome wherever we go. (Of course as any xenophobe will tell you - "the difference with the Irish is that we worked wherever we went. We didn't scrounge".)

There is no simple answer to any of this, and to make decisions that are too drastic, based on a wave of public sentiment, might not be the wisest move for our politicians right now.

Sunday Independent

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