Monday, November 25, 2013

On the meme about Irena Sendler

I've come across this meme a couple of times recently and felt uncomfortable after reading it, but hadn't spent much time looking at my reaction or the structure of the wording.

My superficial impression was that it was a backhanded, unsavoury dig at Al Gore, and presumed it was written by climate change denialists.
The reader is being asked to agree that the lady in question acted honourably and selflessly (which I gather the did), yet the wording compares her acts of wartime courage with Al Gore's attempts to raise awareness to the challenges associated with climate change and the need for action.

I felt manipulated. Given how the piece is written, if I agreed that Irena Sendler was a good and honourable woman, then I would have to acknowledge that Al Gore wasn't deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize. But like many people I moved on, not giving it any further thought.

However yesterday, I saw the meme again and was directed to a blog, The Daily Mull, where the author had analysed and outlined some of the tasteless aspects of the piece.
Most readers won't even know that a criteria for the Peace Prize is being involved in significant activities during the past two years, and that therefore she didn't even qualify by the basic rules, at the time.
And regarding Al Gore:
They won't bother to find out that it was for all of his "efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."
Since then I've done some more reading and found further interesting information. In Examples of Really Faulty Logic, I discovered that what is now a handy-to-forward meme, apparently began as an email which you were encouraged to share (aka a poisoned letter) during a US campaign year. 
the email originated before June of 2008 – about4 years ago – during a political campaign year (gee, could that have something to do with it?)  At that time, it only mentioned Al Gore, not President Obama.  Since it mentions that award (The Nobel Peace Prize 2007), which, by the way, was awarded jointly to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr. “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”, that might have been part of the incentive. 
The letter has apparently morphed a few times and President Obama doesn't appear in the latest incarnation. Only the dismissive and poisonous punch line mentions Al Gore and the barely accurate, snide comment about a "slide show on global warming" remain from the original. 

Someone clearly has an issue here and is working to perpetuate the fantasy that climate change is a myth, sneakily planting the seeds that encourage readers to be predisposed to further derogatory, undermining comments and minimising the desperate need for action. 

Despite being recognised and honoured for her great work, Irena Sendler's significant awards aren't mentioned in the meme. 
She has been honored by international Jewish organizations - in 1965 she accorded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem organization in Jerusalem and in 1991 she was made an honorary citizen of Israel
Irena Sendler was awarded Poland's highest distinction, the Order of White Eagle in Warsaw Monday Nov. 10, 2003. 
In 2003 Irena Sendler also received the Jan Karski Award for Valor and Courage. This is awarded to a "person whose substantial life work best exemplifies Karski's valor and compassion, including selflessness, a profound sense of humanity, extraordinary courage and willingness to accept a burden, pain and suffering to save or help others. Clearly, not an insignificant award!

These are impressive decorations, and not to be taken lightly, yet the reader is encouraged to assume that she hasn't been adequately recognised for her work. This is clearly not the case.

If these words and photos were honestly designed to celebrate the life of a courageous woman why are these awards completely ignored?

So now I know why I felt uncomfortable after reading the meme. Irena Sendler's good deeds are being used to degrade and devalue the important work of others. It's undermining. It's not honest. It lacks integrity. It deflects from focusing on the importance of action on climate change, and equally offensively, by manipulating the reader, it detracts from the celebration of Irena's courage.

Manipulation? You bet.
Underhanded? Absolutely.
Nasty? Yes.
Open an honest about its intent? No.
Accurate? Only partially.

Some questions to ask:

  • Who benefits from this kind of meme?
  • What is the real agenda?
  • What am I being asked to accept in the hidden message?
  • Am I being placed in a bind where if I agree with one message, then by default I have to agree with the second message? (In this case that climate change is unworthy of attention)
  • Is there room for complexity and grey areas?

The whole thing is as unsavoury as biting into a crisp fresh apple and finding that it's rotten to the core.

Since writing this post, I've been contacted by Mary Skinner the writer and director of the PBS Documentary about Irena Sendler - In the Name of Their Mothers. Her comment is in the comments section below, and she confirms that the email and meme are indeed not appropriate and would be disliked by Irena Sendler.

In an interview, Mary Skinner talks about meeting with Irena Sendler and encouraging her to be filmed:
"It was very hard for her to talk to be filmed. She was embarrassed.  She didn’t feel extraordinarily heroic. She didn’t like to recount her memories of the war, but we eventually convinced her to give us some time on camera, mostly because we used the argument that the more women, especially young women, learned about her story and the story of these other women that were part of her network — basically teenage girls — the more people will be inspired toward that kind of moral courage. It was essential for people like her to talk and to recount what actually happened, because so many of the eyewitnesses are passing and  we can’t ever forget how devastating that experience was for the Jewish people, especially in places like Warsaw." (my bold)
In the above paragraph, the phrase "moral courage" stands out. It is definitely lacking in both the meme and offensive emails. A person or group who displayed moral courage would be honest and upfront about their motives.

Further information:
Irena Sendler:

Climate change:

On sharing memes:


IrenaSendlerFilm on PBS said...

Thank you for your insight and exploration of this disappointing viral email. Please consider mentioning the PBS Documentary Irena Sendler In the Name of Their Mothers, which features the last long interviews with the "real" Irena Sendler. She would hate this meme, I can assure you.

-Mary Skinner, Producer/Director

Sue Travers said...

Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to confirm that the email and meme are indeed an inappropriate use of the good deeds of Irena Sendler.

I really appreciate your input and will indeed mention the PBS Documentary and thank you for bringing it to my attention.


Cruella Collett said...

This is excellent - both your explanation, Sue, and the comment by the documentary film maker. The first thought that struck me was, as you also pointed out, that while this woman's actions clearly deserve recognition she wouldn't have been eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 (given Alfred Nobel's will, which it still baffles me people are so ignorant about, while they still have so many opinions about the Nobel committee's decision, year after year). The rest of this, however, I did not know, and I am glad you educated me. Thank you!

Sue Travers said...

Cruella, thankyou for your comments. The more I think about the email and meme the more nasty and poisonous they appear and if I can share my learning and insights without boring readers that's excellent!