Seeing the Individual
By now everyone has seen the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the 3 year old toddler washed up on a Turkish beach after the boat he, his older brother, mother and father were travelling in sank. Suddenly the mass of Syrian refugees has become an individual, a young child, with a name, parents and a tragically short biography.
In the earliest beginnings of humanity we lived as family units, then as villages or tribes. When it became law to have a family name for the purpose of registration and taxation many families in many cultures chose names that identified them as the son of their father. Go into the townships of South Africa and ask for directions from someone who was born there and they will probably direct you using the homes of relatives and friends as landmarks, not street names or prominent features – shops, billboards, public buildings. Read books of societies a century ago and note how prominently people feature as individuals, by name and pedigree.
Today we identify ourselves more strongly as individual than ever before. We do not want to be lumped together with our family or social grouping and yet, more than ever we see everyone else as an amorphous mass. We speak of the Syrian refugee crisis, African refugees, beggars on the street corners, in South Africa we love to lump taxi drivers into a single grouping. The media possibly takes the lead in this, probably because size matters, groups are more scary than individuals.
When a face is put to a grouping, as The Sunday Times in South Africa reminded us on 6th September 2015, Aylan Kurdi becomes the Syrian refugees, Hector Petersen became the face of the student uprising in the mid-1970’s in South Africa, the naked girl the face of the war in Vietnam. When we take the trouble to meet the man begging at a traffic light we meet a person with a name, a family, a biography and a story, someone not to different from ourselves.
So, why don’t we recognise the individual? I suggest it may have something to do with how we operate emotionally: we have basically two emotions – fear and love. All other emotions are one or the other. Fear drives us to generalise and see everyone else as different from us while love allows us to see the individual. The media loves to drive the emotion of fear. Look at headlines; it sells. However, the photo of Aylan Kurdi proves that love also sells.
The US government has taken the route of fear: “if we accept refugees we may let in terrorists”. Pope Francis on the other hand has championed love calling on all Catholic families to take in a refugee family. Fear: us and them; love: see the individual.
The photo of Aylan Kurdi has caused many people in Europe to see the individual; groups from England have crossed to France to help feed the refugees being barred from crossing the Channel and the German government is looking at accepting large numbers to refugees to bring their skills and labour to Germany.
What does it take for each one of us to set aside fear, stop grouping others as different and embrace love and see the individual and learn to relate to him or her?