Scandals are subjective, a representation of the collective subjective. We simply have to agree that something is scandalous and it shall be, after all the audience are the most important component of a scandal. Scandal is indeed democratic. Just because scandals often have to do with the violation of moral codes (or ethics) it doesn’t mean scandals are morally corrective; instead they are interesting deviations from the norm that have a willing crowd ready to express concern. This became clear to me recently after engaging in a discussion about a “scandalous” selfie; although late after the storm of the scandal has subsided. The selfie shows the self-er, with what seems like two friends and a wrapped dead body in the background given a Muslim burial. It was snapped at the burial of the selfer’s friend. The selfer posted it on his Instagram page with the caption:
Selfie with my dead nigga !!! Rest in peace !!! Keep rocking till we come !!! Safe journey man
The picture was widely shared with outrage and it seems there are a number of points that offends people’s sensibilities. How dare he take a selfie at a solemn burial where he should have been reflecting. How dare one of the friends smile in the picture. How dare he make such a comment about the dead. How dare he share it on social media. The outrage is guttural, emotive, reactive, instinctive but hardly reasonable after closer inspection. Beneath the surface of the scandalous accusations, there is lack of thoroughness, hypocrisy, inconsistency and ignored but relevant aspects of the picture. The scandalous contagion was widely spread and accepted; hence it became a scandal. The responses and comments on the issue are reminiscent of a scandalous blasphemy in Kano when a Muslim man referred to another as the personification of God; many Facebook commentators said it was worse than all the killings and pillage and oppression carried out by Boko Haram. Similarly I see uncritical instincts shadowing reasoning in this case.
In summary, my arguments are two. The picture does not merit the scandal it caused, if scandals are to be based on careful reasoning. Secondly, the person deserving the most heat of the criticism is not the selfer but those who promoted sharing of the picture in the first place. Although Christians also found the selfie offensive, Muslims took it more personal, to the level of blasphemy or sacrilege; and when asked they incline towards religious explanations. It is for this reason that I shall argue from a Muslim perspective.
It seems the issues people have with the picture are that: it was taken as a selfie; the language used in the first comment; and the pose and smile of one friend in the picture. Scandals, even on selfies, should not be based on careless presumption on the circumstances of the event. Selfie being a prevalent phenomenon today has even warranted a fatwa (or opinion of scholars) on it; most notably selfies with Ka’bah in the background. The egotistic nature of selfie contributes to its ability to disturb our ethical sensibilities. Any thorough (Islamic) legal ruling condemning a cultural phenomenon is bound to be padded around by so many conditions that the focus would be on the conditions rather than the phenomenon. For example, a ruling on the appropriateness of cultural ceremonies like weddings and birthdays depends on the conditions (activities) under which the ceremonies occur. The exception to this is where there is clear scriptural basis to make a judgement on that cultural phenomenon (which probably must have existed similarly at the time of The Prophet).
If selfie itself is not a taboo, then perhaps the public excitement comes from conditions around the selfie, most notably the first comment. Language also is another cultural phenomenon that may be used rightly or wrongly, regardless of the form it takes. The object of language which is subject to moral judgement is its content; not so much its form. So let us now take the scandalous comment and change its form, but maintain the content.
The original form is “Selfie with my dead nigga !!! Rest in peace !!! Keep rocking till we come !!! Safe journey man” in ebonics (Black American English). It is important here to note that ebonics and rap have been unjustly associated with bad morality in the public’s subconscious.
The content of the comment in a more a recognized English is equivalent to:
“Selfie (a moment to remember) with my deceased companion. May you rest in eternal peace. May we also share in the eternal peace when we die. May you reach the peace that awaits you”.
I don’t think many would find the content shocking, after all we have similar sayings which are considered virtuous. So the outrage seems to be merely on the form of language, by those who don’t appreciate the form; I would say that is classist. Interestingly, it appears the selfer is not completely ignorant of Islam’s burial rites because the last comment on the picture is him referencing the late Albany of Zaria on the topic.
So who has definitely violated a moral code; at least in Islam? As we have seen, the action of the selfer, is marred with ambiguity since the content is open to different understandings. However, there is less ambiguity surrounding the action of those who shared the picture, especially those first to share. The language used by those sharing to accompany the image leaves little space for other interpretation other than they are escalating the scandal; or creating a scandal. The first sharer was the one who made available the “scandalous” image to an audience outside the reach of the original post. The first sharer is probably a “friend” of the selfer. The first sharer is like a friend who broadcasts what he sees as your flaws to the world for them to judge. The circle of friends may not be as closed, because hashtagging could easily expose your post that would typically be restricted to a circle of friends, now to a community of strangers who can judge you with little or no information about your background which could contextualize your action. Nonetheless, it appears there was no hashtag on the picture posted by the author, so it seems someone else took the liberty to share the picture to the public for judgement.
Defamation of character is a serious offense in Islam, attested to by Qur’an, Hadith and Seerah. As a result privacy in Medieval Muslim architecture was a major design consideration. Even adjudication in cases of character assassination is very stringent in Islamic legal philosophy. We may not see it that way, but social media has primed us to celebrate the failings of others, even if we have to imagine them failing. Perhaps it makes us feel good about ourselves since the level of astonishment at scandalous failings is proportional to how far we consider ourselves from committing the same act.
Rather than investing time into promoting a scandal that may not even be justified, why don’t we justify our claims of superior moral character to the scandal actors by considering the morality of our response to them. In an attempt to shame them, rightly or wrongly, we shame ourselves. Selfie + ebonics + burial may not be wrong. But sharing a post on character defamation for no reason but to confirm your disapproval may be wrong.