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Evidence of absence

I have been following the Facebook controversy where a photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in pain and terror after a napalm attack in an iconic Vietnam War photo. The controversy began after the editor of the Norwegian newspaper said he had received a demand from Facebook to remove the photo, which was in an article posted to his page. Within 24 hours, he said, Facebook removed the photo and the article itself. While there is a question of nudity, there is also a question of our tailoring our view of the past and possibly the future to suit our wants. I am reminded of Mrs. Jellyby, a character from Dickens, Bleak House, rich socialite obsessed with helping the neglected children in Africa while neglectful of her own children. Dickens describes her as having wonderful eyes that could see the starving children in Africa while unable to see the condition of her children at her feet. If we can remove a picture as it is, inappropriate due to nudity, what other reasons are there for us to remove content. Perhaps we would find pictures from the Holocaust too disturbing to be seen or video of Christine Chubbuck, a newscaster who committed suicide on camera too much to be online. While the latter has been removed due to the family’s wishes, there are many sites that will tell you the details of the incident while withholding the images. We still have a visceral appreciation of the event even if we don’t see it. But what about those images that contribute immeasurable value to our understanding like the photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese girl. Is this what do we do with things that are too difficult to see, will we also remove those images and posts or websites, in a way denying their existence? Could we become an electronic Mrs. Jellyby, seeing only the things that we want to see while ignoring others?

Photo by Nick Ut

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