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Defending the ‘Auschwitz selfie’

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(CNN) — It is understandable why Breanna Mitchell’s sunny tweet from Auschwitz as “PrincessBMM” would spark a viral outcry. A tour of a concentration camp, where so many Jews lost their lives, may move us to take photos or post responses — but few would include smiles, or selfies.

But Mitchell is not the first teenager to generate Internet outrage by her response to the Holocaust.

When Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House last year, he wrote in the museum guest book, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully, she would have been a Belieber.”

While many have ripped into Mitchell and Bieber for their insensitivity, I don’t think they intended to be disrespectful to the dead.

Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices (mobiquity!), adolescent mistakes and hard lessons that used to be learned in private can quickly devolve into public drubbings.

This is what happens when new technologies clash with ancient understandings of the sacred. The problem is so pervasive that a Tumblr site, “Selfies at Serious Places” is dedicated to such faux pas.

We have very few spaces that our culture considers sacred, where an association with the divine results in a feeling of awe or reverence. Death may seem especially abstract to young people who haven’t been shown how to grieve, mourn or respect the dead.

So how might we help the emerging generation to develop a digital decorum that accounts for sacred spaces? Can we incorporate electronic ethics into religious instruction?

This summer, I have been teaching students at Pepperdine University’s London campus, which has given my family remarkable opportunities to see the places that define European history. Traveling with my 12- and 14-year-old children has raised questions about what is appropriate and where.

While some churches such as Westminster Abbey prohibit photography, others such as the Salisbury Cathedral allow all kinds of cameras. Our eyes, ears and spirits were far more sensitized in Westminster Abbey, where we were freed from “getting the shot.”

Once an hour, an announcement at the abbey invites visitors to pause, wherever they are, for a moment of respectful silence and prayer. How rare and appropriate to see a church encouraging us to pause en masse for sacred activity — rather than mere digital documentation of our visit.

The selfie could provide a sacred pausing if it didn’t involve so much posing.

It is one way to record a moment, to fix an experience as a reminder, “I was here.” It can be a lovely way to communicate to friends and family, “Wish you were here.”

But it also involves a level of performance that often pulls us out of the place itself. And a selfie can veer toward the humblebrag, advertising our summer vacation to friends.

The temptation with social media is to turn our friends into an audience. We cast ourselves as the star and think about how to entertain our followers. Tours of revered spaces become an opportunity to post a photo.

Should we travel to Amsterdam or Auschwitz to acquire content, to have something to share on social media?

We may sink into the spiral described by poet T.S. Eliot, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.” Our digital devices create a conundrum: how to be fully present in the moment we are also trying to broadcast?

This summer, the line to tour the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam snaked down the block and around the church next door. So many students have read her poignant “Diary of a Young Girl” for school assignments.

Yet John Green’s best-selling, young adult novel, “The Fault in Our Stars,” also awakened interest in Frank. In the novel, two teens, battling cancer, climb the stairs to Anne’s attic hideaway, where they experience their first kiss.

Older and established film critics questioned the appropriateness of the scene, but the target audience of adolescents found it powerful and inspiring. Where critics saw blasphemy and disrespect, teens edged toward the transcendent.

As Green writes in “The Fault in Our Stars,” “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.”

When our family toured the house, no photos were allowed. The crowd was remarkably respectful. People of all ages climbed past the bookcase that covered the back half of the house and concealed the Frank family.

While I paused with my kids to take in the reality of the books still on the shelf, a woman in her 40s pulled out her phone and snapped an illicit photo. No personnel saw it. No one chided her actions. Perhaps she shared it on Facebook in a respectful way.

The wisdom in Ecclesiastes declares that there is “A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Yet we may not weep or laugh or photograph the same things at the same time.

We found even more incongruous responses to the Holocaust in Berlin.

Architects Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind navigated considerable controversies while crafting moving Holocaust memorials. They respected the concerns of families and survivors while making history relevant for generations to come.

But they cannot control the public’s response.

While my family walked reverently through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, others were playing hide-and-seek and jumping across the tomb-like steles.

At the Jewish Museum, we were haunted by the Holocaust Tower. When the door closed behind us with a thunderous boom, the huge, oppressive walls and darkness bore down upon us. Yet we also watched countless school groups cruise in, take a quick pic and hop out.

Should we be encouraged that so many young people were touring the museum?

Parents and educators are challenged to communicate the gravity of the Holocaust to the next generation. In “Night,” Elie Wiesel reminded us why we must continue to teach and speak and visit horrific places like Auschwitz, “For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.”

Still, we cannot control what Justin Bieber or Breanna Mitchell post.

Where most of us saw disrespect in Mitchell’s smile, she claimed it was a moment of bonding with her deceased father. Their shared experience of studying about Auschwitz found fruition in her visit. Her selfie and smile was a positive form of grieving — and an affront to others.

Perhaps the wisdom of Viktor Frankl can help us navigate a world where privacy has nearly collapsed and everything is open to self-promotion.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl noted: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

We must continue to provide sacred spaces and opportunities for us all to pause, to turn off our devices long enough to experience the divine. But that space must also be open to indifference, to blasphemy, to selfies.

For even in its intense inward focus, the selfie posted on social media is also a cry into the void: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”

May Bieber and Mitchell hear an affirming whisper rather than merely a massive outrage.

Craig Detweiler is a professor of communication at Pepperdine University and the author of “iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives.” The views expressed in this column belong to Detweiler.

 

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