I hate selfies. I find them to be the epitome of both narcissism and bad photography. I’d much rather ask a stranger to take a quality photo of myself in a special place than flip to that secondary lens on my phone, hold my arm out at an awkward length, and snap a photo that emphasizes my face and detracts from the significance of the scenery around me. I’m there to experience the place, not to take pictures that are 85% face and 15% background.
But the thing is, I’m wrong, and I know it.
People have been posing for pictures of themselves since photography was invented. Before that, wealthy people would pay artists a healthy paycheck to paint them on canvas. Those paintings were quite likely much more glamorous than the real person actually was. I mean what artist is going to honestly paint the blemishes of the person who butters their bread? The selfie is just another round in the evolution of self documentation. In and of itself, there is nothing pathologically narcissistic about it. It just feels that way.
Enter the Auschwitz Selfie. This has become a thing. The New Yorker even wrote about it. Young people are traveling to the infamous Nazi concentration camp, taking selfies there, and posting them to their social media accounts. One Auschwitz selfie, that of a teen girl named Breanna has gotten Twitter all a-twitter.
Breanna posted this selfie with the comment “Selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp” last month. Since then, the photo has gone viral. She has received over 6,000 comments, many of them viciously angry that she would dare to post this picture of herself at one of the most tragic and horrible places in human history.
In her defense, the young girl has said that she is fascinated by the Holocaust, and that she shared that interest with her father. The two of them dreamed of seeing Auschwitz together, but he passed away a year ago (this is known to be true). After graduation, Breanna says that she and her mother fulfilled that dream, and she was happy to be there to honor her dad.
OK, granted, the photo and the comment look pretty insensitive and ignorant. She’s there with a smile on her face and an earbud in her ear. But is there another interpretation?
It makes sense to be happy to achieve a life goal. She probably should have given more context in her comment, but Twitter’s format doesn’t allow for too much writing. I see hundreds of teenagers a day, and walking around with one earbud sticking into their ear is almost automatic. Everyone does it. Besides, we have no idea what she was listening to on that earbud. It could have been an English language guided tour of the facility.
It sure seems that she made it worse when she retweeted other stories about her with the comment, “I’m famous y’all.” One commenter even said that her use of “y’all” showed that she didn’t have the intelligence needed to understand and appreciate the horrors of Auschwitz. But Breanna is from Alabama. Using “y’all” is everyday speech; it’s completely normal vernacular. It’s as much a part of normal speech there as “like” or “totally” is here in southern California. We’ve all made things worse by saying stupid things before we fully understood a situation. Cable news makes a habit of it.
I’m not arguing for one side of this or another, but for a larger point. Humans can be very ugly creatures. We find fault in other people without knowing all the facts. We deny those same faults within ourselves when we perform similar actions. When we are confronted, we retort with something like “You don’t understand all the details.” Which is true. But, you know what? Neither do you.
This is actually a real psychological phenomenon. It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. It states that we make internal attributions of others while underestimating external attributions. In other words, when someone does something we don’t like, we blame their personality rather than taking in all the details of the situation. The other side is that, when we do the same thing, we overestimate the situation and don’t turn inward to see what is wrong with us.
When you get cut off on the freeway, you say all sorts of nasty things about the other driver. When you cut someone off (we’ve all done it), you defend yourself by saying things like “I didn’t see them” or “that other guy was going way too fast.” We commit the fundamental attribution error all the time. Every day. It’s normal.
The problem is that that normality is amplified in the anonymous safety of the internet. Online, we can insult people all they want while easily shielding ourselves from any blowback we incite. Social media has made this worse, and if you’ve ever been unlucky enough to read the comments to news articles about immigrants, the gay community, or any racial or ethnic group you’ve seen this problem on steroids.
It is a classic case of projection. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps us feeling good about ourselves in the face of attack. When we are uncomfortable with something in ourselves, we project it onto another person. If we are insecure about our looks, we gossip about that tacky co-worker. If we are insecure about our weight, we follow all the news about celebrities packing on pounds. If we feel that we aren’t good enough, we take pleasure in tearing down others.
This is what happened to Breanna. This is what happens all around the internet every day. We all have our demons we’d prefer not to face, so we lump them on an easy victim- one that can’t fight back. In the end, this story isn’t about one ill-advised selfie. It’s about a world full of wounded, sad people.
But we can learn from this. Knowing about the fundamental attribution error is a huge advantage. Every time we find ourselves wanting to judge another for their actions or label them with some dismissive insult, we should stop. We should consider outside factors that could have caused what we saw. We should check our emotional gut reaction and consider what we see in ourselves that causes us to see others in such an automatically negative light. We should ask ourselves why we take pleasure in insulting others. You can’t change what someone tweets, but you can change yourself. We could all use an internal selfie now and then.