In the first week of September 2015, photos of a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi, haunted our collective consciousness. Aylan and 11 others (including his family) drowned in the Aegean Sea on their way to the Greek Island of Kos after their boat collapsed. Aylan's body washed ashore in Turkey wearing a bright red shirt and blue shorts. A little boy who could have been any one of our sons. French President François Hollande stated that the picture should serve as a reminder of our collective moral obligation to those fleeing war-torn Syria: "If the picture went viral around the world, it must also get a round of responsibilities... I think about all the victims that are never photographed, and the future victims if we do nothing." (http://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2015/09/03/french-president-calls-erdogan-over-images-of-drowned-syrian-boy-calls-for-common-eu-refugee-policy).
Aylan's picture humanized the Syrian refugee crisis in a way that led to many European leaders welcoming fleeing Syrians into their country (though an ongoing battle continues). But the fact that it took a photograph of a lone dead child to stir so many minds and hearts reflects an issue that is an unfortunate part of the human condition: we tend to radically dehumanize others, particularly those with whom we disagree on political, ethical, or religious issues. Aylan's picture forces us to put a face on a problem from which so many people are suffering, and that face, in turn, calls us into action. In the words of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face of the other "speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation... the face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation" (Totality and Infinity 198-201). But dehumanizing others erases that face, their humanity, from moral consideration. While it is too late for us to respond to Aylan's need, his picture should provoke us to consider the ethical obligations we have to the other refugees.
When we vilify or dehumanize others, we mentally rob them of their "sameness" to us. As a result, it becomes psychologically easier to justify harming them, or to treat them with indifference. Dehumanizing others can so deeply impact our psyche that it may have neurological effects; one study illustrated that when "participants viewed targets from highly stigmatized social groups (e.g., homeless people and drug addicts) who elicit disgust, the region of the brain typically recruited for social perception (the medial prefrontal cortex) was not recruited. Those who are the least valued in the culture were not deemed worthy of social consideration on a neurological level" (Phillip Atiba Goff et al., "Not yet human: implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences.").
In 2014, the United States faced an influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors trying to cross the southern border in what President Barack Obama called an "urgent humanitarian crisis." These children were mostly from South America, fleeing countries with unspeakable violence, hunger, abuse, and poverty. The following is a sample of the language used against these children in public discourse (offensive language has been deleted):
"To hell with these scummy, smelly __ and send them back to where the hell they came from and take their diseases and drugs back with them!"
"... these ILLEGAL INVADERS are... easy to find, just go to the welfare office, the free clinics, schools, or Home Depot!"
"Come to my house I'll take care of your illegal __ . NO questions asked. I've got a nice deep hole for you."
"We are seeing the intentional destruction of America!! Wake up....time to fight back. We won't stop them with votes.....it will take bullets!!"
There are, indeed, viable arguments on various sides of this issue. However, as a nation, we are not discussing immigration in any fruitful way, and one reason has to do with the vitriolic rhetoric that permeates this, and so many other, debates (and the anonymity internet forums provide seems lend itself to incredible viciousness). It seems we have become increasingly unable to argue our differing viewpoints on important social issues without robbing each other of our common humanity.
The treatment of undocumented immigrants is but one example; consider, also, the recent reactions to instances of police brutality against unarmed black men and women. I have seen people dismiss the death of these persons as justified because they resisted arrest, and even celebrated another "thug" off the streets. Whether they had criminal histories is irrelevant as to the tragedy of their deaths - they were parents, siblings, spouses, friends, children. In each case, a mother or father dropped to their knees in agony over the death of their child. And the same goes for the police officers who have been targeted as a reaction to these incidences - all lumped together under one category as racists, or oppressors, or "pigs." But they too are men and women who are loved and valued human beings, whose parent(s) also fall to their knees in agony when they don't come home. The pain of a little child asking when their daddy or mommy is coming home is the same, regardless of that child's skin color or the circumstances of their parent's death. The empty space on their bed pierces the heart of their spouse regardless of color. We should be able to debate issues of police brutality in our society with all this firmly in mind; in a way that takes the death and oppression of all persons seriously and without robbing each other of our common humanity.
The process of dehumanizing each other is supposed to make moral issues less complicated. It's easy to be against illegal immigration when you're not drying the tears of a migrant child, or you're not a parent facing the decision to either illegally immigrate to another country or keep your child living in poverty, surrounded by drugs, gangs, and brutal murders. It's easy to be anti-police when it's not your spouse who you hug every morning in full knowledge that they may not come home that night, and it's easy to dismiss the deaths of unarmed black persons as justified when you haven't walked a single day in the shoes of black Americans in a society dripping with hate and prejudice. And all this extends to many other ethical and social issues. For example, it's easy to dismiss homosexuals or transgendered persons as immoral when it's not your child crying in her room terrified of not being loved and contemplating suicide. It's easy to be in favor of "traditional marriage" when you can easily lie next to your partner at night in confidence that your union is secure and sanctioned. And it's easy to deride others who are having difficulty accepting marriage equality or transgendered rights as nothing but mere bigots, when many of them are struggling between an evolving society and the lessons of their church that have formed such as integral part of their spiritual lives. It's easy to dismiss all Muslims as terrorists to satisfy your indignation, rather than looking each of them in the eye to see them as individuals who are often just as disgusted by the violence perpetuated in the name of their religion as you are.
It's easy - but it isn't right.
That's the rub - moral issues are not supposed to be easy. The human condition is hard. These issues are complicated and multi-layered. Removing the mask that we place on others when we dehumanize them reveals the complexity of our moral lives - and that complexity is challenging to deal with. But we can look around our society and see that the consequences of not removing that mask are far more severe.
If we genuinely seek to change the minds of others, we must approach them with well-thought-out arguments, unbiased evidence, and a fair amount of compassion and care. And with a dash of humility, we keep in mind that perhaps they have something to teach us as well.
So please, by all means, take the side on these issues that most aligns with your individual moral and spiritual values. Donate to the cause of your choice (there are many organizations that are now taking donations to help Syrian refugees). Volunteer your time. Write your political leaders. Become more informed. Express your beliefs to others, even on internet forums...but always do so in a manner that puts the face of "the other" squarely in front of yours. Don't erase the moral worth of your fellow human being in exchange for moral expediency, and, in principle, call out those who do. In his book Works of Love, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard implores us to remember that, when Jesus commands us to love the neighbor as the self, he is calling for a radical egalitarianism - that the differences between us are supposed to "hang loosely" on our identities. Instead, Kierkegaard suggests that we look at each other like this: "Take many sheets of paper and write something different on each one - then they do not resemble each other. But then take every single sheet; do not let yourself be confused by the differentiating inscriptions; hold each one up to the light and you see the same watermark on them all. Thus is the neighbor the common mark."
We shouldn't need a picture of a dead child to remind us of our common watermark.
Wouldn't it be a beautiful testament to his short life if that's what it did?
**Many thanks to Ryan Ehrfurth, Dara Hill, and BonnieJean Kurle for their comments and suggestions