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|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
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How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Selfie?
I have always wanted to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.
— Howard Thurman
Did you see the "Smiling Selfie in Auschwitz"? An American teenager touring Auschwitz stirred up a firestorm of criticism when she posted a picture of herself smiling amid a concentration camp (and even included a blushing smiley face emoticon). Her Twitter handle, "Princess Breanna@PrincessBMM," played into so many stereotypes of the millennial generation as entitled, spoiled, and insensitive. The iPhone earbud dangling in her photo only enhanced the notion that she was drifting cluelessly through a Nazi death camp to a private soundtrack, trampling the memory of those snuffed out in such a horrific genocide. To many, her selfie communicated ahistorical insensitivity, her smile seemingly mocking the six million lives lost under the Nazis' horrific genocide. Breanna was lambasted across social media (and traditional media outlets). As her infamy grew, the Alabama teen tweeted, "I'm famous, ya'll." The outrage was swift and unsparing.
My family was in Europe when this online debate exploded. We were teaching at a summer program in London. Thanks to my book iGods, I was invited by CNN to comment on the controversy for their Belief Blog. It was obvious that the student's reaction (and even her efforts to explain her reasons for smiling) were not easily defended. She talked about connecting with her deceased father through the experience. They had studied the Holocaust together just before he passed away. While most wondered, "What kind of monster could walk through gas chambers and come away smiling?" I saw a teen, perhaps still in personal grief, connecting with her father across time. Rather than attack, I chose to offer a defense of this teenager who was being grilled across the Twitterverse.
We'd taken our children to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin just days earlier. Our kids were eager to tour the Anne Frank House. Though they had been introduced to Anne's poignant Diary of a Young Girl in school, they had become even more interested in her home thanks to its appearance in John Green's young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars (2012). The book portrays two teens, Hazel and Gus, who fall in love while battling cancer. They travel to Amsterdam in search of a famous author who inspired Gus. The house where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis serves as the backdrop for a romantic first kiss between Hazel and Gus in the novel (and the 2014 movie). While Anne's fascination with movie stars is documented in the glamour shots still pinned to the walls, some appropriately questioned whether kissing in the Anne Frank House was insensitive. Hazel herself struggles with whether kissing in such a historic place is insensitive to Anne's memory as a Holocaust survivor.
She ultimately rationalizes that Anne enjoyed teen romance within that house and surely might be pleased that others would dare to pursue love in the same place.
In Berlin, while my family pondered the enormity of the Holocaust at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, others played hide-and-seek amid the tomblike stelae. We took photos, but we didn't run around with childlike abandon. The gravity of the place weighed heavily on our hearts. At the Jewish Museum in Berlin, we were haunted by the Holocaust Tower. When the door closed behind us with a thunderous boom, the huge, oppressive walls and darkness bore down upon us. Yet we also watched countless school groups cruise in, take a quick pic, and hop out. To them, the memorials were a backdrop for yet another selfie.
Should we be encouraged that so many young people were touring these memorials? Or outraged that they didn't know how to act properly in a place steeped in so much suffering and pain? They grabbed the requisite tourist snapshot but may not have grasped where they were, what they were surrounded by, or what opportunities for reflection were present. They fell into a trap described eloquently by poet T. S. Eliot: "We had the experience but missed the meaning." How many times have I been guilty of cruising through an ancient ruin or a famous museum in search of the requisite shot, the approved tourist photo? It is far too easy to treat the world as a stage dressed for our best selfie. We can sleepwalk through places and experiences designed to move us and come away with selfies that distracted us from our setting, blinded us to the transcendent or eternal.
But who needs to wake up whom?
I feel like the responsibility for explaining the gravity of Auschwitz falls upon those who've gone before Breanna. In the Bible, God repeatedly urges his people, "Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past" (Deut. 32:7). In his autobiographical Night, survivor Elie Wiesel reminds us why we must continue to teach and speak and visit horrific places like Auschwitz: "For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences." Miroslav Volf writes that "if no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible." How can we convey solemnity to a generation that never experienced the Holocaust? There are many forms of teaching.
Israeli artist Shahak Shapira crafted a creative and confrontational response to inappropriate selfies posted at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. He photoshopped the most insensitive photos taken at the Berlin memorial onto historical images from the concentration camps. The YOLO (you only live once) spirit of the contemporary selfies was juxtaposed with the haunting reality of piles of Jewish bodies discovered at the conclusion of World War II. Shapira posted his examples of public shaming online at Yolocaust.de. He included an email address where these worst offenders could ask Shapira to remove their embarrassing image. Within one week, 2.5 million people had visited the Yolocaust. Shapira noted, "The crazy thing is that the project actually reached all 12 people whose selfies were presented. Almost all of them understood the message, apologized and decided to remove their selfies from their personal Facebook and Instagram profiles." A gentleman who captioned his photo with "Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial" asked for forgiveness: "I have seen what kind of impact those words have and it's crazy and it's not what I wanted. ... And I am sorry. I truly am." Shapira honored such surprising changes of heart by removing the Yolocaust site altogether. Pain caused by offensive selfies was transformed via repentance.
Questions of what spaces or occasions are sacred aren't limited to instances of genocide. A quick internet search for "inappropriate selfies" reveals all kinds of lapses in judgment, including smiling selfies with the deceased at funeral parlors. Perhaps these young people haven't been taught that when a Jewish family gathers to sit shiva following the burial of the deceased, mirrors in the house are covered. It is a time of introspection. Prayers and focus are to be directed toward God, not ourselves. Crowds that turn their backs to masterpieces in order to snap a selfie with a Van Gogh have vexed art museums and curators. In front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art, plenty of visitors are looking away from the painting, more interested in themselves on their screens. Contemporary artist Kara Walker anticipated how people would interact with her massive installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) at a former Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. A seventy-five-foot sculpture of an African American mammy with the naked body of an Egyptian sphinx is anything but subtle. This African figure is composed of refined white sugar, a bracing commentary on economic and sexual exploitation of black women in America. Signs encouraged visitors to post pictures of their experience with the hashtag #karawalkerdomino. Walker knew that a ten-foot-tall vagina would prompt insensitive reactions from visitors because "human behavior is so mucky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate." How should we respond to our complicated feelings about identity, race, power, gender, sexuality, and the sacred?
After thousands of people clicked and commented on my CNN article about Auschwitz, I realized that we desperately need places to process our conflicted thoughts about selfies. Our intense relationships with our phones seem to have only exacerbated our frustrations with each other. We haven't sorted out a code for digital decorum. What is sacred amid so many selfies? The digital era has disrupted so many established industries and traditions. Institutions are scared. Civic and religious leaders feel threatened. Social media is creating epistemological problems and raising foundational questions: What is truth? What sources can be trusted? As our culture boils, most of us have retreated to our phones. We are so busy broadcasting ourselves that we have no time to worry about our neighbors. We tell our children to be patient and loving and kind, but we haven't figured out what that means in our online activities. With devices in hand, we all too easily treat others as a position or a problem rather than as a person. We may acknowledge this is a problem, but few of us have the time, energy, or resources to propose a solution, to mine our spiritual and ethical resources in search of rehumanizing precedents. We will not rise above our political divide until we recognize the glory and dignity of each other on (and off) line. Digital discipleship is a new concept, still being sorted out.
One point of agreement seems to be that selfie takers are selfish. We blame our devices, but mostly we blame each other. "Kids today ..." "In my time ..." "We never ..." A survey of college students joined the chorus, calling selfies "arrogant, self-absorbed, disgusting, degrading, ridiculous, vapid, useless, selfish, shameless, vain and hedonistic." We chastise ourselves for self-interest, even while we're posting. A cycle of self-loathing follows. Some Facebook friends of mine suggested they'd never be interested in a book about such a superficial subject. The word "selfie" is perceived so negatively, even as passé. The Chainsmokers satirical dance single, #Selfie, gave us ample reasons to hate those who exclaim, "But first, let me take a selfie." And yet I pressed on, energized by what I've studied and encouraged by what I've discovered.
Because they are a recent phenomenon, selfies have only begun to be studied by researchers. The iPhone 4 debuted in 2010. By including a front-facing camera, Apple enabled users to see (and photograph) themselves more easily than ever before. A quick "click" and iPhone owners could share their image far and wide. By 2013 the word "selfie" had become so ubiquitous that the Oxford English Dictionary proclaimed it "the word of the year." Art critic Jerry Saltz defined it this way: "A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone's camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, [a selfie] is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we're doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching." Parents and teachers have been flummoxed by how quickly the smartphone has captured adolescents' attention. Teens have been handed a potent tool without an operating manual. Never have so many been able to reach so many so quickly. Smartphones have remarkable democratizing power. They also have the ability to surveil the public like never before. More diverse voices are being heard and more colorful faces seen. And yet algorithms may be splintering us into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people. A new tribalism may emerge that threatens democratic ideals. We are still trying to figure out how to respond to this powerful and prolific form of communication. Could a deeper appreciation of selfies renew our affirmation of everyone's God-given dignity and worth?
I wade into the maelstrom as parent and professor. Smartphones and selfies are ever present in my home and classroom. I'm not sure what to think about them. They can be a distraction and also a delight. To sort out my own ambivalence, I will merge research from classicists, art historians, psychologists, and communication professors with my training as a theologian and visual storyteller. I may end up with a book that frustrates experts in their field, but my aspirations are to offer an alternative route into a conversation regarding social and technological shifts that impact us all. Consider this an exercise in theological aesthetics — how to see more clearly, reflect more deeply, and respond more perceptively.
Are Selfies Dangerous?
Taking a selfie may be an act of genuine joy. We may want to preserve a private moment of victory or pleasure to relish and recall. It may be just a reminder for us. We may want to lock in our minds a time of deep satisfaction. Photographs have always been a way to commemorate a major rite of passage: weddings, births, graduations. To these major life transitions we may now add a concert, a game, a vacation, a retreat. These peak experiences are distinguished from the more mundane days that tend to blend together. Some of us are actively trying to find beauty amid the mundane. We pause to capture a perfect cappuccino or an especially exquisite pizza. I am all for private moments of profound gratitude. Surely these are central to the gift of life. As the wise writer of Ecclesiastes encourages us, "Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do" (9:7).
Selfies have been proven to be far more than a threat to civility and sacred spaces. They can undermine our health and well-being. Selfies can be dangerous. A Spanish man was gored to death when he tried to take a selfie amid the running of the bulls in Pamplona. A fifteen-year-old in India photographing himself holding his father's gun died when he accidentally pulled the trigger instead of pushing the photo button. Two Polish parents taking a selfie stepped off ocean cliffs in Portugal and tumbled to their deaths in front of their children. We can get cut off from our surroundings, lose focus, and suspend judgment in pursuit of the perfect picture. It was widely reported that in 2015 more people died from taking selfies than from shark attacks. How much risk will you assume to get the ultimate selfie on a mountaintop, in front of a train, or with a wild animal? The blind pursuit of the perfect image, ignoring our surroundings and context, can have grave consequences.
Have you seen the extreme selfies of Russian daredevils Kirill Oreshkin and Alexander Rusinov taken atop skyscrapers? They constantly aspire to new heights, taking on new risks, in search of even more death-defying selfies. How do their pictures make you feel? Dizzy and disoriented? Exhilarated and alive? Do we admire their bravery or shake our heads at such risky behavior? I appreciate the audacity of those in search of an extreme selfie. National Geographic celebrated how "the selfie generation gets outside." The pursuit of peak experiences may involve getting back to nature, from scaling a mountain to fording a rushing river with a GoPro strapped to our heads. Images on Instagram may inspire us to get off road, to dive off cliffs, to explore glorious national parks. The Russians' frightening feats provoke mixed feelings and high anxiety. We may understand why they took the #bestselfieever but wish they would stop. We hope they realize the enduring truth that "pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 6:18) before it is too late.
Our conflicted thoughts reflect the mixed feelings we have about selfies. Sometimes we admire the ingenuity; on other occasions we condemn such grandstanding. We may loathe the duck faces gathered on Instagram or love the spontaneity that accompanies Snapchat. We may be happy for our friends' peak experiences but envy them at the same time. How many of us have wanted to break a tourist's selfie stick in two? Selfies are loved and hated with equal intensity. As we've seen with Princess Breanna, a pose struck out of personal satisfaction may be received as an offensive boast. Did you follow the shaming of sorority girls that were caught on camera taking selfies during an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game? The male television announcers bemoaned "every girl locked into their phone." "Oh, Lord." "Welcome to parenting 2015; they're all just completely transfixed by the technology." They mock their "selfie with a hot dog, selfie with a churro, selfie just of a selfie." The announcers conclude, "Help us, please, somebody, help us! Can we do an intervention?" Online condemnation was also swift: "They have the combined IQ of a burnt tater tot." Afterward, it was discovered that the D-backs' stadium announcer had just asked the crowd to take selfies as part of a contest/promotion. There is always so much more to the story.
Excerpted from "Selfies"
Copyright © 2018 Craig Detweiler.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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