North Africa, West Asia

The war with images

Social and political militants have all now transformed into marketing activists as they struggle to find ways to convince the public that the Palestinian cause is righteous.

Bashir Saade
22 September 2014

No matter what one says about the horrors of Israeli actions in Gaza, regardless of all the campaigns spreading across the various media technologies aiming to show the gruesome nature of Israeli actions, not least the growing number of dead and wounded, women and children, and how graphic and shocking the images are, Israel seems to have been  winning public opinion regarding the “right” it has to shell Gaza and remove entire families from the face of the earth.

For that matter, not one single condemnation of Israeli actions has been issued from western governments during the whole period of Israeli shelling of Gaza. Social and political militants have all now transformed into marketing activists as they struggle to find ways to convince the public that the Palestinian cause is righteous. They do so by appealing to a complex set of sensitivities.

In the last two decades Palestinian solidarity movements have made great progress in ‘building awareness’ across a western world that was traditionally oblivious of this cause. Although I am a strong supporter of any action that defends the Palestinian cause, from Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel to awareness campaigns, and most importantly actual military resistance, I think that certain methods are counterproductive, namely the use of images of dead people, injured, crying and lamenting, in sum, any picture that shows Palestinians in a state of humiliation or despair.

Is the best way for people to understand the suffering of the Palestinians - to render it visible by all means possible? Do you want people at large to feel the plight of the Palestinians, “as if it was happening to me”, or do you want Palestinians to be respected as I respect myself and the members of my immediate community? People usually confuse both these aims, but I argue that the first is not always followed by the second.

This is because our understanding of the others’ experience of oppression is framed by social differentiation. The plight of others can mobilize me to help but not necessarily to respect the other or to consider him my “equal”. This is what we call pity. And although pity may help people to understand the human condition better, it makes sure political or cultural divisions and hierarchies are kept alive.

Pity does not help people feel they belong to the same community. Two main types of emotions or sensitivities facilitate considering others as equals: fear and solidarity. The first one is the easiest to come by, yet the worst. Sadly, it is the prevailing one in modern political liberal systems where a community's stability is mostly based on the security of economic transactions which are inextricably tied to the safety of the working population.

The second one is much harder to cultivate and involves ethical work at both the individual and group level. Most importantly, the cultivation of forms of solidarity implicates a structural change in the particular regime or ‘constitution’, to use a Greek term, of a particular political system. Capitalist democracy and terrorism are the two sides of the same coin as they involve a politics of fear. That is a politics that produces action by either instilling fear (terrorism), or trying to avoid it (democracy).

Most humanitarian work is based on the feeling of pity. One of the reasons why humanitarianism struggles to make grounds in modern politics is that fear produces a much greater impact than pity. Contrast the effect caused by the killing of more than 2000 Palestinians during the Israeli assault of Gaza to the one of American journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS. The reason people were so shocked by the killing of Foley stems partly from the fact that he was perceived as ‘one of us’ or, more precisely, one who has a similar civilizational status. Two thousand Palestinians, whole families, that are wiped from the face of the earth may have ‘moved’ people in many ways but the type of fear and anxiety felt by the killing of an American citizen was undoubtedly markedly different because it involved the killing of an ‘equal’ or an ‘identical’.

Hours after the posting of the Foley video, it was practically impossible to find one single website that contained an uncensored version of it. Why this panicky rush to remove this video while people continue flooding social websites, email inboxes, newspapers, etc with so many pictures of dead or injured Palestinians?

Simply, one cannot hope that campaigns using pictures showing the depiction of Palestinians in a desolate or pitiful way will bring people to consider the Palestinians as someone who is of the same civilizational status. Actually, the reverse is possible: if initially Palestinians are considered as equal to other people then the showing of ‘an equal’ in that situation would cause outrage, even if for the wrong reason (just like in the case of Foley, or the recent plane crash in Ukraine where victims' bodies were not allowed to be shown). Pity only works once in practice ‘equality’ is lived and not just theorized about.

Some people argue that the images of the dead and injured are ‘dehumanizing’, but I think that this is not completely true. If anything, they do bring out in us ‘human’ feelings - although perhaps not the right ones. Based on partaking in feelings or experiences of helplessness and oppression, which are definitely human feelings, we are creating a hierarchy of values given to different types of living (or dead) human conditions.

The images of which we are speaking are meant to provoke sensitivities of pity or empathy for the people affected. But in order to bring out feelings of solidarity and brotherhood, a higher cause is needed, in order to feel that we are all part of the same community.

Take a classical example of using a horrible event but turning it into a deeply respected ritual: the fate of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Why is the world still shocked by the images of Nazi concentration camps but they can continue to be imperturbably exposed to pictures and videos of Arabs being killed? Despite the myriad of documentaries and films about the holocaust we seldom if ever see any pictures of the dead of concentration camps (especially pictures that record the instance of death).

In this respect, pity is the worst feeling as it most often triggers feelings and representations of inferiority. Now, the more death seems immediate in the pictures, the more it triggers a feeling of distance from the other. If on the other hand, death is dealt with as a sacred event, is either hidden or artistically worked on (such as in the case of martyrdom culture) then respect will develop, as its proponents know very well. In the case of martyrdom, one can even look up to death as a socially uplifting experience.

Military institutions seem to have fully understood this human reality whether consciously or not. We mostly see pictures and videos of dead civilians but rarely of soldiers. We never see dead Israeli soldiers, or Hamas or Hizbullah fighters. In the 1980s, Hizbullah rarely published pictures of dead combatants in the battlefield. What becomes visible is mostly issued by the command center of these organizations and it is evident that those who issue these materials do not have in mind the production of pity but that of pride and honor.

Apart from martyr pictures of fighters that hang on walls and poles long after they have died, no pictures of fighters wounded or dead are preserved for commemorations or other events. In its struggle to increase the value of Jewish life as one of the most precious on the planet, Israel has definitely understood that it is not pity but fear that can galvanize crowds. It must be truly exceptional for a dead Israeli civilian to make it to our screens.

Did we actually have pictures of the bodies of these three teenagers that sparked the series of violent events? No. The residents of Tel Aviv look much more sympathetic because they live the normal life that each person strives to live. After the killing of the three teenagers, CNN ran a long story with biographical accounts of them, their dreams, aspirations, favorite hobbies, studies, etc., describing how they lived normal lives.

Instead, Gaza is perceived as a place where no one lives a normal life. Even if some pictures and articles try to show the “how-similar-they-are-from-us” phenomena of Gazan people, more often that not, media production, salivating for sensationalism and voyeurism ends up showing that in Gaza horrific things happen (which is true after all).

Why did the fall of the tower of World Trade Center cause horror to most people watching when graphic pictures of Syrian dead civilians do not? How many people did we see dead after the fall of the World Trade Center? None! All we remember is that these people were living ordinary lives and that from one minute to the other, their fate was forever changed. We don't feel pity for these people, we feel pain and fear that instead of turning into pity, turns into a selfish feeling: “because he has the same status as me it could happen to me, he's part of my community”.

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