This morning’s Guardian has an editorial about the sudden turnaround in British public opinion regarding the need to help Syrian refugees, a shift clearly caused by the heartrending photographs of young Aylan Kurdi’s drowned body washed up on a Turkish beach.
The turnaround in the British tabloid press has been astonishing. The Murdoch Sun, which just months ago published a column describing the refugees as “cockroaches” by a woman boasting that her heart could not be touched by drowning children, now puts “For Aylan” on its front page and demands that the government provide places for 3,000 orphans. That is very little compared with the need, but it is still 3,000 times more than the paper would have considered Britain had room for three days ago.It’s a good piece about two important issues—the moral imperative to help refugees everywhere (an imperative that applies as much to editors in Brooklyn, New York as it does to the British public), and also the fact that we humans are far from rational in what affects our daily inclinations. We’re unmoved by hundreds of pages of dry facts, but show us a photograph of a small child in tennis shoes washed up dead on a beach and suddenly we’re ready to act.
Almost everyone now sees that there is a moral imperative to help the Syrian refugees, even if this means letting them into the UK. It may be that this is just a spasm of sentimentality and that in a fortnight the same papers will be back to denouncing the “migrant” hordes in Calais, and demanding that dogs, or the British army, be deployed to protect holidaymakers from refugees as they were three weeks ago.
Likewise, I’m as small-minded and focused on the local as anybody else. Normally the displacement of millions of innocent Syrians tends to weigh on me as merely one of a seemingly endless series of humanitarian crises for which there is never enough attention or care. But put one particular namecheck into a Guardian editorial and you have my undivided attention:
[I]t is also an astonishingly vivid demonstration of the inadequacy of statistics to move our moral sentiments compared with the power of pictures, and still more of pictures that bring to life stories, to affect us in ways that reasoning never could. As the critic Teresa Nielsen Hayden observed, “Story is a force of nature.” One single death and a refugee family have moved a nation to whom 200,000 deaths and 11 million refugees had remained for years merely a statistic, and not a very interesting one at that.That was…unexpected.
(SF&F-related sidebar: Neil Gaiman has been working for some time to change the way we think about Syrian refugees from “problemic foreigners” into “people like us who we’ve got to help”. And much credit to him for it.)