NORTH ADAMS -- When I was 7 years old, my father got leave from Vietnam and we met him in Hawaii for vacation. During that trip, we visited the USS Arizona memorial. I remember posing for pictures with my mother, each of us smiling, because that’s what you do in family photos. I can’t remember if my father took the picture, or if he set up a tripod to take one of all three of us. I’ve seen enough early family photos to know that if he did, he smiled too.
More recently, the Seven family visited the 9-11 Memorial, which was filled with people taking pictures of themselves and each other. Many were smiling.
I think of these whenever I read about the latest selfie outrage. The last one was over teenagers taking selfies in concentration camps. The big one before that was selfies at a funeral. The latter saw a Facebook page documenting the phenomenon after the page’s creator noticed it firsthand on a visit to a camp. Later, the person shut down the page after all sorts of complaints, including, of course, death threats.
These selfie outrages are often used to frame Millennials as more callous and clueless than generations before them because they take smiling pictures of themselves at sites of death and tragedy. The reality is that they are being caught doing it since their mode of sharing photos isn’t to go to the drugstore to have them printed, to place them in an album and to set that on the coffee table rarely to be looked at. They put them online.
I have never been to a Civil War battlefield, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them has had some tourist take a giddy selfie on a visit. I wonder the same about Donner Pass or the Alamo, the site of the Hindenburg disaster or anything to do with the Titanic? How many happy faces get photos taken of them throughout Salem?
We fret that that the Millennials don’t understand the serious nature of past tragedies and history will repeat itself. I’m not sure what good clinging to tragedy has ever done the world. And while Millennials may take smiling selfies at the sites of atrocities, it was the generations before them committing the senseless acts that are now historical sites. The people in skinny jeans visiting them now with smartphones in hand have nothing to do with those horrors.
Surprise! Humanity can be cruel and future generations try to put it all past them. That’s how humans keep going. Whatever gets you through the night, as Sinatra prescribed.
It’s not just Millennials that do that. Stop making up lies. How many people from previous generations have had their photos taken by the grassy knoll? How many smiled?
I have a friend visiting Japan, and she told me about an incident in Hiroshima where a couple of people, a younger man and an older woman, attempted a selfie. For whatever reason it wasn’t working and they asked my friend to take it for them. She wondered if she should take part in documenting these people’s smiling visit to a scene of historical, nightmarish gruesomeness? Then she decided, she didn’t know these people’s story. It wasn’t her place to presume, to judge.
A selfie, like a snapshot, is a small picture of a brief moment, too small to use to judge a person, let alone a generation. Selfies exist because of technology created by older generations that younger generations have embraced. The Millennials are our creations, just like selfies. They’re our children. Let’s stop attacking the things we create as scary. It makes us look like big reactionary blowhards like we thought our parents were.