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The commodification of Palestinian pain

Western activists have turned the war in Gaza into a moral snuff movie. It is obscene.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics World

Have you seen it yet? The image of a Palestinian kid cut in half following the IDF’s bombing of Rafah? If you’re on social media you probably have. Or maybe you saw the video of a severely injured Palestinian child seemingly taking his last breath. It went viral last week. There it was vying for our attention alongside all the other viral stuff, trending with Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce. Perhaps you’ve heard the audio clip of the six-year-old Gazan girl, Hind Rajab, phoning for help after the car she and her family were travelling in came under fire. Tragically, Hind was later found dead. Her final words have been posted everywhere. Everyone must listen to this ‘harrowing’ and ‘haunting’ call, the activist class insists.

There’s an unseemly feel to all this feverish sharing of images of Palestinian suffering. ‘Roll up, roll up, hear a child’s dying breath’ – that’s what I hear when I see post after post inviting us to behold the lives and bodies that have been broken by ‘evil’, ‘Nazi’ Israel. The clicktivists who share these grim images no doubt think of it as ‘Palestine solidarity’. We’re raising awareness of the suffering of the Palestinians, they’ll say. In truth, they’re dehumanising the Palestinians. They are commodifying their trauma, making a spectacle of their agony. And the aim, it seems to me, is less to assist people in Gaza than to provide a moral rush to activists in the West, to furnish them with the comforting sensation of collective repulsion. It is an entirely narcissistic project, as far from ‘solidarity’ as you can get.

The omnipresence of images of Palestinian pain is unsettling. Of course war often throws up shocking images that burn themselves into world consciousness. One thinks of the photo of the naked nine-year-old girl in Vietnam fleeing a napalm attack or of the incinerated Iraqi soldier from the First Gulf War. But we’ve never seen anything like the tsunami of distressing images flowing from Gaza into the palm of our hands. Every day we are invited to watch clips of extreme injury and death, to make ourselves voyeurs to a stranger’s last moments, to view and share what are essentially snuff movies disguised as radical political products. It’s not normal. And it is not healthy.

So ubiquitous is this commodified suffering that experts have stepped in to offer tips on how to deal with it. We are being ‘flooded with images and stories of destruction’ from Gaza and it could ‘take a toll on our mental health’, says one. Beware ‘vicarious trauma’, we are warned, which is when an individual experiences ‘symptoms of trauma’ as a result of seeing ‘traumatic events happening to others’. ‘How to cope with watching war unfold’ is the title of a guide published in Teen Vogue, aimed at its TikToking readers who are no doubt seeing images of dreadful horrors from Gaza alongside their usual online fare of make-up tutorials and viral dance videos.

It feels positively Ballardian, everyone at their laptops, 15 tabs open, some containing celebrity gossip, others pornography, and others still images of a Palestinian kid under the rubble of what was once his home. We are being ‘exposed to a kaleidoscopic view of human suffering without respite’, says Frances Nguyen in the New Republic. We live under a ‘visual regime’, she says, an environment ‘oversaturated with traumatic imagery’. ‘The photograph’, says Nguyen, has become ‘the first and last point of contact with current events’. She’s right. Some are engaging with the Gaza conflict in an entirely visual way. Not politically but viscerally. They don’t want to understand – they want to feel.

It’s all down to technology, observers say. Mobile phones and social media mean we can see the reality of war like never before. War is now ‘livestreamed’ to gadgets in our pockets. In the old media era, there were ‘standards guiding what the viewer [saw]’ in times of war, says Nguyen, but there is no such ‘meticulous editing process’ in the social-media epoch. We see it all, a constant ‘spectacle of violence’. I think there’s more to it than technology. Much more. If this were just about the rise of social media, then why didn’t we see a similar explosion of suffering porn during the Ukraine war or the Saudi-Yemen war? The technological means for ceaseless sharing of images of injury and death existed for those recent conflicts, and yet it didn’t happen. We did not see the daily, hourly in fact, hawking of graphic images, like we see now.

No, beyond technology, the fetishisation of Palestinian suffering, the exploitation of Palestinian pain for clout and likes, tells us something about our culture. And about the very specific nature of what is referred to as ‘Palestine solidarity’ but which some of us prefer to call ‘Israelophobia’. It is social and political sickness, not technological advancement, that has given rise to today’s Palestine snuff movies that bourgeois radicals are watching on a loop.

For me, the most striking thing is that people seem to covet images of death from Gaza. They don’t recoil, they seek. A writer for USA Today admits that he ‘can’t help but follow graphic images from [the] Israel-Hamas war’. He says he welcomes ‘immersion in raw imagery’, even though he ‘should know better’. One expert says some people ‘feel they have to… keep looking’ – looking at images of horror, that is – in order to reassure themselves that their ‘feelings make sense’. The end result, says one commentator, is that people become ‘stuck in a cycle of atrocity and trauma’ – they look at horrific images from Gaza in order to feel something, and they share those horrific images in order to let other people know what they felt. On and on it goes, a ceaseless spiral of trauma porn.

Clearly, the activist class gets something out of its fetishisation of Palestinian suffering. However, it is not clear at all that ordinary Palestinians benefit from having their trauma turned into viral matter for bored voyeurs. Indeed, just a few years ago the Palestinian psychiatrist, Samah Jabr, warned against sharing ‘shocking content’ showing ‘shattered people’ in the Palestinian territories, on the basis that such ‘pictures of pain’ violate ‘the privacy and dignity of the subjects’ and can ‘create terror’ among Palestinians who might fear suffering the same fate. These images might ‘provide thrills’ on social media, and give rise to ‘more likes and shares’, but they can devastate ‘public morale’ among actual Palestinians, Jabr wrote. Today there seems to be no concern whatsoever for the impact that commodified Palestinian suffering might have on Palestinians. The sharing of their trauma is now utterly unrestrained. The ‘thrills’ of clicktivists take precedence over the ‘dignity’ of Palestinians.

The material interests of ordinary Palestinians have been subordinated to the emotional interests of the West’s activist class. Palestinian privacy and dignity be damned – we have virtue we need to signal on the back of your broken bodies. Witness activists’ attachment of hyper-emotional comments to every grim image and snuff film they share – about how ‘distressed’ they are, how racked with ‘guilt and anxiety’, how ‘apoplectic with rage’. This is not anti-war, it’s pro-self. It’s not solidarity, it’s vanity. It’s a kind of emotional colonialism, where the virtue of the Palestinians lies less in their own dignity or capacity for statehood than in their role as fluffers of the moral self-regard of privileged Westerners. Radicals damn Israel for subjugating the Palestinians even as they subjugate them to the lost cause of their own search for meaning.

Even a left-wing critic of Israel has spoken out against the ‘trauma porn’ in Western activism. ‘Masses of well-intentioned people’, says Joshua P Hill, are ‘sharing traumatic content one day after another’ because they are ‘seized with an inability to act effectively’. There is something in this. It speaks, I think, to a broader crisis of public life. It is more than 50 years since Guy Debord published his book, The Society of the Spectacle, in which he posited that people increasingly engage with society through ‘images detached from every aspect of life’. In the ‘empire of modern passivity’, he wrote, the ‘spectacle’ is one of the few things that can make us feel connected and alive. We can see a version of this in the ‘spectacle of violence’ activists have fashioned out of the war in Gaza – a collection of detached images that they hope will jolt a passive generation into feeling something. Self-important, at least.

Ordinary Palestinians might get nothing from the moral voyeurism of their self-styled champions in the West, but it is possible Hamas does. When images of Palestinian suffering become valuable political currency, keenly sought and shared by influencers, we should not be surprised that Hamas seems determined to create more such images, more such suffering. ‘We are proud to sacrifice martyrs’, said a Hamas leader shortly after the pogrom of 7 October. Why wouldn’t they be? They know how well ‘Palestinian martyrs’ play in the West. They know their unpaid propagandists in the influencer set will marshal every ‘martyr’ to the cause of delegitimising Israel in the eyes of the world. It seems to me that there is a grotesque symbiosis between the Western lust for images of Palestinian suffering and Hamas’s willingness to prolong and promote that suffering by refusing to surrender to Israel.

The most urgent form of liberation the people of Gaza require is liberation from the vain and demented ideologues of Hamas who are dragging out a war they can’t win, and liberation from the phoney solidarity of privileged Westerners who treat Palestinians as little more than tragic bit-part players in their own moral psychodramas. Free Gaza, yes – from you.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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