A Syrian refugee apparently took a selfie on a decent mobile phone and it was not okay with the right wing militants of Britain. At the moment a hate-fuelled meme is doing the rounds on social media and it tells us some important truths not only about the frighteningly fascist attitudes towards refugees in our country but also about the role that the refugee is expected to play in the ideology of right wing Britain.
The horrible meme makes out that fleeing a war zone and the traumas associated with that is not enough to deserve our sympathy if you have a Samsung phone. Possess a symbol of capitalist success and modernity, manage a smile of relief and, in our unforgiving political climate, a traumatised refugee is be deemed a fraud. This article has asks two questions. First, in the eyes of the British right, why should a refugee not have a mobile phone? Second, why should a refugee not take a selfie?
The Independent have pointed out that one of the first things you’d buy if you were fleeing your home is a smartphone, and that people surprised to see Syrian refugees using them are idiots. The smartphone is a symbol of modernity and the claim of the meme is that if you have already been brought into modernity then you do not require our help. This shows a colonial viewpoint still present in our right wing: they see the west as more modern and civilized and expect the countries from which these refugees come to be backwards and primitive. The oddness in the meme is the fact that it claims these countries are just as modern as us, as if we should only be helping ‘backwards’ or ‘primitive’ countries and that people from nations with smartphones would be fine on their own.
If refugees are seen to come from a barbaric and uncivilized world that can be labelled primitive, then they come from a world that is not that of modernity and this justifies a diminished responsibility on the part of the UK public and politicians. It naturalizes the refugees experience and makes it part of the natural or inevitable ‘course of history,’ a language often used by UK and US politicians, meaning that specific political conditions (which the west is responsible for) are not seen as the reason for trauma and devastation. Modernity is not seen as responsible for devastation but as the saviour from it.
In short, the meme claims that people without a smartphone do need our help because they need bringing into western modernity: fleeing mud huts and ‘backwards’ nations is okay, but fleeing modernity throws up all sorts of difficult questions surrounding Britain’s foreign policy (which has a direct hand in Syrian air strikes) and confronts us with a need to consider the cause of fleeing.
So to the second question: why can refugees not take a selfie? It is first worth noting that some have suggested this meme may even be photoshopped to include the mobile, and second that it is clearly not a ‘selfie’ in terms of our culture but is more likely to be an attempt to communicate the refugee’s safety to her family. Nonetheless, the meme and its circulation show that the idea of a refugee taking a selfie is significant. Selfies in themselves are interesting to discuss in that they hold a controversial place even in our own society, they are the absolute symbol of modernity, encompassing all sorts of complex arguments about vanity and identity. Having a sense of the portrayal of oneself does not fit in with the image of a refugee that our right wing culture likes to consume. A refugee taking a selfie throws into question the way that refugees are typecast within our media. The mainstream media response to young, able men being refugees has been written about in The Huffington Post for example: people, and not just those at Britain First, seem troubled by images of refugees that do not conform to their expectations.
In conclusion, whilst Germany and other European countries opened their borders to help ease the crisis, the British media remained closed and unwelcoming. Thankfully, recent weeks have seen a strong backlash against this and the media have begun to take something of a u-turn in their coverage of the international refugee crisis. This is a relief from the militant right wing stance on the refugee crisis, which shockingly had become the voice of the mainstream media (see this earlier article). However, this meme points us to a possible danger that this u-turn is reserved for only the neediest and most desperate (usually women and children), those who aesthetically appear war torn and desperate enough and conform to our expectations of what a refugee should look like and how a refugee should behave.
In the end this meme shows us three things. First, it quite simply and obviously shows how much hateful fascism there is in our society. Second, it shows how these structures are still supported by a colonial ideology that sees the passage to modernity as the natural course of events and does not want to admit that this trauma and devastation is a modern problem that our own brand of modernity is responsible for. Third, it warns us of the danger of our preconceptions and expectations when it comes to refugees and shows us how deeply ingrained in right wing ideology some of our assumptions may be.