Thursday, September 03, 2015

Aylan Kurdi and Saint Joan

Why does it take a photograph of a drowned child to make people care about Syrian refugees?

I have seen more than one person asking that on Twitter today. Their implication was that the rest of us should be ashamed of ourselves for being insufficiently logical.

The truth is that people do not live by words and logic alone. Images matter too.

I have been thinking today of George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan.

In it John de Stogumber, chaplain to the Earl of Warwick, is a boneheaded Englishman. In another age he would have been a hardline Protestant if not a Ukip candidate.

He is a great enthusiast for the prosecution and execution of Joan of Arc, until he encounters the reality...
I let them do it. If I had known, I would have torn her from their hands. You don't know: you haven't seen: it is so easy to talk when you don't know. You madden yourself with words: you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper. 
But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then--then--[Falling on his knees] O God, take away this sight from me!
Or as David Hume put it:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

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