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Moral injury and the recalibration of priorities


Charlie Hebdo Aylan Kurdi cartoonFrench satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has stirred controversy over cartoons depicting Aylan Kurdi. Theirs are not the only such illustrations that have drawn offence over the past couple weeks.

On the surface, this speaks to the contest that usually attends icons — who owns them, what the bounds of propriety are, and whether they can be used for other purposes.

But it also makes for uncomfortable reflection on the scales of offence and sensitivity. Which is truly deplorable: the image of a drowned child as political (actually pro-refugee) provocation or the fatal inertia around the Syrian civil war and the rise of Daesh that has indubitably contributed to the humanitarian crisis?

More than 8000 children had perished in the Syrian civil war by April 2014, little Aylans and Gilips and Sabeens and Amiras.

The 12,000 additional places for Australian permanent resettlement on offer for refugees from Syria and Iraq is little more than one percent of the anticipated Mediterranean crossings for this year and the next. It does not account for those who will remain in camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and in our own detention centres, nor those fleeing conflicts in Central African Republic, Eritrea and South Sudan.

The hard truth is that body of a three-year old refugee cannot be a holy relic, as if it were untouchable and profound. It is unadulterated sacrilege, a profanity that we should be spitting at our leaders. This is what Charlie Hebdo has done.

Of course it also worth pondering how much of our grief and outrage over such deaths is performative. Must fury, despair and grief only be appropriate when personal consequence or loss is involved? What is the point of being miserable over things we cannot control?

I was wrestling with these questions when I came across the concept of moral injury. Clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay coined the term to refer to those aspects of combat trauma that are not addressed by post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD is usually associated with triggers — when particular situations, words and sensory stimuli provoke distress, fear or paralysis. These are instinctive reactions to perceived threat, which are honed on the frontline but are incompatible with other environments.

Though moral injury can coincide with PTSD, it arises from different factors: witnessing, learning about, failing to prevent, or perpetrating acts that transgress deeply embedded moral values. It constitutes a betrayal of personal beliefs, inducing feelings of guilt and shame, as well as loss of trust and withdrawal. In a recent article for The Guardian, Sydney-based philosopher Matthew Beard explains that 'when a person is morally injured, they don't view the world as unsafe, but as morally unreliable'.

I am not a veteran, and I don't mean to diminish actual firsthand trauma, but the idea of moral injuries has given me a language for understanding the intensity of my response to certain things.

Morality is our framework for how the world should work, and when reality interferes, the internal damage is made manifest through private tears, halting conversation, unspeakable rage, public rituals of solidarity, and sometimes, unflinching satire. Political cartoonists, at least the best of them, disturb our tendency to seek consolation. They force us to acknowledge moral injuries and recalibrate our priorities.

Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Aylan Kurdi, war, refugees, morality, satire, Charlie Hebdo, war



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Existing comments

We have suffered more than our fair share of moral injury in recent years from the sight of helpless people incarcerated in our name in detention centres both on and off shore. As for the Charlie Hebdo team, given that their chief purpose in life seems to be Muslim baiting and Christian bagging it’s no surprise that so many people failed to see the satire in their crass use of the image of little Aylan Kurdi lying on the beach.

Paul | 17 September 2015  

Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking article Fatima. Trauma changes, most profoundly, the person experiencing and, importantly, the person witnessing. The article brought to mind one of John Henry Newman's sermons "Moral Effects of Communion with God" (verse Ps.27:4). Newman expounds the benefits of prayer, praise, thanksgiving and contemplation. So, as deficient at it as I am, I pray, I praise, I thank and I contemplate.

Pam | 18 September 2015  

I suspect the cartoon you feature is a dig at one of the magazine's perpetual betes-noire. In this case I suggest they are attempting to pillory what they consider the smug moral superiority of Western 'Christian' culture. As you say, the original photo of Aylan Kurdi's corpse being retrieved became an icon for some people. The magazine is attempting to turn that icon against them and what it considers their moral smugness. Charlie Hebdo would see the cartoons it published on Mohammed in exactly the same light: icon destruction. The latter case enraged Muslims all over the world who did not appreciate satire of what they considered a sacred 'no go' area. One of the problems that exist in the modern world is that different cultures have differing concepts of what is fair go in satire and what is an unpardonable insult. Muslims could claim to be morally injured by those cartoons whereas secular French and other intellectuals would consider Mohammed 'fair game' in pursuit of freedom of expression. Therein lies the problem.

Edward Fido | 18 September 2015  

Sometimes a picture or a photograph can portray the consequences of a decision or a policy more dramatically than any form of words. We had the same experience when photos of asylum seekers drowning/drowned at sea. Australia had two choices - accept the asylum seekers from our nearest refugee camps (Malaysia/Indonesia) or stop the boats. Our Government chose 'Stop the boats'. Result; almost zero drownings at sea. Consequence: an ever increasing bottleneck of asylum seekers in refugees in Malaysia/Indonesia. In the absence of graphic ie vivid pictorial evidence, we get on with our lives. But then vivid pictorial evidence arrives of Middle East and African 'boat people' in their thousands seeking asylum in Europe our 'Stop the boats' policy is seen as absurd and an affront to human dignity. Of course something must be done about the push factors that drive these people to seek refuge outside their homeland. What that is I don't know. But something humane can and must be done about the immediate situation. Otherwise the body count will go on rising.

Uncle Pat | 18 September 2015  

@Edward Fido. I think it would be more accurate to say that the problem does not so much lie in what the differing cultures perceive as an insult but their differing response to the perceived insult. Christianity teaches that we should forbear when we are in insulted. Unfortunately there are examples from the sacred writings of Islam that show Mohammed encouraging his followers to react with violence when he was insulted.

Allan Grant | 18 September 2015  

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