The obsession with the selfie
There was a time when one's photograph was taken by others, at their desire and initiation. Very occasionally – on a special occasion or at an exquisite location – one might take the initiative oneself and request of another that they capture the moment for posterity, which complete strangers are invariably very happy to do. Cameras were carried on holiday, to celebrations or commemorations, especially where one's children were the focus of attention. Only photo-journalists would take their cameras everywhere – just in case.
But mobile phone-cameras and iPads have made everyone a perpetual photographer, eager and equipped to capture every visit to Sainsbury's.
Yesterday there was a memorial service for Nelson Mandela: it wasn't a funeral; it was a celebration of a life well lived. There were moments of reflection and mourning, but an awful lot of joyful singing and dancing. During this, it appears that President Obama and David Cameron were content to snuggle in to the neck of Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who evidently wanted to capture the moment for her
It has caused something of a stir. Certainly, the First Lady appears none too pleased. But a selfie at a memorial service presents a curious sociological tension. One might expect it of a teenager, but from a mature adult and senior politician? Yet surely a refusal by either Obama or Cameron would have been an unacceptable snub? Pope Francis has it about right:
You get down wiv da yoof when asked, if only because it is part of the Christian vocation to be all things to all people: it builds bridges and dispels stuffiness. Would the Pope have laughed off Helle Thorning-Schmidt's request, or would he have acquiesced diplomatically?
The self is a curious obsession. It is nothing new, of course: we have battled against the inner egotistical, avaricious and narcissistic parts of our being ever since we became conscious. It is a daily struggle to control selfish thoughts and overcome the inclination to selfish action, and all religions exhort the development of the self-discipline to die to the sinful passions and desires of the flesh – that, in fact, is the root meaning of 'jihad'.
We forgive the first-person obsessions of our families, friends and those celebrities we like. We deplore such expressions in our critics, colleagues and the rich and famous of whom we are jealous or whom we despise. But the self-consciously insensitive politician offends more, for some reason. Is it that we expect a superior self-knowledge and self-awareness? Or is it that we envy them their different perceptions and experiences?
Or is it that our eyes intuitively sting at the sight of an introspective consciousness whose identity ought to be selflessly representative of a people, and whose thoughts and concerns ought to be with the third-person plural?