This summer, the image of a Syrian child washed up on the Turkish shores galvanized the world into sitting up and taking notice of a global crisis. Young Aylan Kurdi became a symbol for our compassion in his tragedy, shaking many out of their desensitization to the news.
To a certain extent, these pictures get the kind of airtime they do for a particular reason. They prick the conscience of an audience that sees the subjects as “other”, the kind that would feel grateful not to be in their place.
Be it Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam war, the Sudanese child starving as a vulture stalks nearby, or NatGeo’s famed Afghan Girl playing poster girl for the refugee crisis, these images are remembered long past their relevance to the news cycle.
These children, however, amount to not much more than their value as symbols. Their misery is captured to explain a situation, but their lives matter little in the larger scheme of news. After all, theirs is not the narrative that sells.
The one that sells is the one that panders to the 81% of all Canadians who consider a niqab ban necessary to the fabric of their country.
It appeals to the people who hear news of a construction crane accident in Mecca on the 14th anniversary of 9/11 and call it divine retribution.
It appeals to those who can’t understand why ‘Black Lives Matter’.
We can deny it all we want, but in the very celebration of minority representation on television and the historical recognition they are eventually rewarded lies the truth that this media diet caters to a very specific demographic.
Consider for a second the rate of mass shootings in the United States. Consider now whether anyone even considered using the awful images of, say, the victims of Sandy Hook to illustrate the importance of gun control. Of course not. That would be terrible.
Why not extend the same courtesy and dignity to the children of other cultures?
Which is not to say that the very existence of images like that of Kurdi is problematic. On the contrary, these iconic images have historically proven to create social change like no other.
But perhaps it would be prudent to be critical, to question ourselves in what the Western media cycle considers mainstream and what is thus out of the ordinary.