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Smiling for 'Auschwitz selfies,' and crying into the digital wilderness
This tweet from Breanna Mitchell sparked a fierce debate over selfies and sacred spaces.
July 22nd, 2014
08:53 AM ET

Smiling for 'Auschwitz selfies,' and crying into the digital wilderness

Opinion by Craig Detweiler, Special to CNN

(CNN) - It is understandable why Breanna Mitchell’s sunny tweet from Auschwitz as “PrincessBMM” would spark a viral outcry.

A tour of a concentration camp, where so many Jews lost their lives, may move us to take photos or post responses - but few would include smiles, or selfies.

But Mitchell is not the first teenager to generate Internet outrage by her response to the Holocaust.

When Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House last year, he wrote in the museum guest book, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully, she would have been a Belieber.”

While many have ripped into Mitchell and Bieber for their insensitivity, I don’t think they intended to be disrespectful to the dead.

Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices (mobiquity!), adolescent mistakes and hard lessons that used to be learned in private can quickly devolve into public drubbings.

This is what happens when new technologies clash with ancient understandings of the sacred. The problem is so pervasive that a Tumblr site, “Selfies at Serious Places” is dedicated to such faux pas.

We have very few spaces that our culture considers sacred, where an association with the divine results in a feeling of awe or reverence. Death may seem especially abstract to young people who haven’t been shown how to grieve, mourn or respect the dead.

So how might we help the emerging generation to develop a digital decorum that accounts for sacred spaces? Can we incorporate electronic ethics into religious instruction?

This summer, I have been teaching students at Pepperdine University’s London campus, which has given my family remarkable opportunities to see the places that define European history. Traveling with my 12- and 14-year-old children has raised questions about what is appropriate and where.

While some churches such as Westminster Abbey prohibit photography, others such as the Salisbury Cathedral allow all kinds of cameras. Our eyes, ears and spirits were far more sensitized in Westminster Abbey, where we were freed from “getting the shot.”

Once an hour, an announcement at the abbey invites visitors to pause, wherever they are, for a moment of respectful silence and prayer. How rare and appropriate to see a church encouraging us to pause en masse for sacred activity - rather than mere digital documentation of our visit.

The selfie could provide a sacred pausing if it didn’t involve so much posing.

It is one way to record a moment, to fix an experience as a reminder, “I was here.” It can be a lovely way to communicate to friends and family, “Wish you were here.”

But it also involves a level of performance that often pulls us out of the place itself. And a selfie can veer toward the humblebrag, advertising our summer vacation to friends.

The temptation with social media is to turn our friends into an audience. We cast ourselves as the star and think about how to entertain our followers. Tours of revered spaces become an opportunity to post a photo.

Should we travel to Amsterdam or Auschwitz to acquire content, to have something to share on social media?

We may sink into the spiral described by poet T.S. Eliot, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.” Our digital devices create a conundrum: how to be fully present in the moment we are also trying to broadcast?

This summer, the line to tour the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam snaked down the block and around the church next door. So many students have read her poignant “Diary of a Young Girl” for school assignments.

Yet John Green’s best-selling, young adult novel, "The Fault in Our Stars," also awakened interest in Frank. In the novel, two teens, battling cancer, climb the stairs to Anne’s attic hideaway, where they experience their first kiss.

Older and established film critics questioned the appropriateness of the scene, but the target audience of adolescents found it powerful and inspiring. Where critics saw blasphemy and disrespect, teens edged toward the transcendent.

As Green writes in “The Fault in Our Stars,” “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.”

When our family toured the house, no photos were allowed. The crowd was remarkably respectful. People of all ages climbed past the bookcase that covered the back half of the house and concealed the Frank family.

While I paused with my kids to take in the reality of the books still on the shelf, a woman in her 40s pulled out her phone and snapped an illicit photo. No personnel saw it. No one chided her actions. Perhaps she shared it on Facebook in a respectful way.

The wisdom in Ecclesiastes declares that there is “A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Yet we may not weep or laugh or photograph the same things at the same time.

We found even more incongruous responses to the Holocaust in Berlin.

Architects Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind navigated considerable controversies while crafting moving Holocaust memorials. They respected the concerns of families and survivors while making history relevant for generations to come.

But they cannot control the public’s response.

While my family walked reverently through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, others were playing hide-and-seek and jumping across the tomb-like steles.

At the Jewish Museum, we were haunted by the Holocaust Tower. When the door closed behind us with a thunderous boom, the huge, oppressive walls and darkness bore down upon us. Yet we also watched countless school groups cruise in, take a quick pic and hop out.

Should we be encouraged that so many young people were touring the museum?

Parents and educators are challenged to communicate the gravity of the Holocaust to the next generation. In “Night,” Elie Wiesel reminded us why we must continue to teach and speak and visit horrific places like Auschwitz, “For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.”

Still, we cannot control what Justin Bieber or Breanna Mitchell post.

Where most of us saw disrespect in Mitchell’s smile, she claimed it was a moment of bonding with her deceased father. Their shared experience of studying about Auschwitz found fruition in her visit. Her selfie and smile was a positive form of grieving - and an affront to others.

Perhaps the wisdom of Viktor Frankl can help us navigate a world where privacy has nearly collapsed and everything is open to self-promotion.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl noted: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

We must continue to provide sacred spaces and opportunities for us all to pause, to turn off our devices long enough to experience the divine. But that space must also be open to indifference, to blasphemy, to selfies.

For even in its intense inward focus, the selfie posted on social media is also a cry into the void: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”

May Bieber and Mitchell hear an affirming whisper rather than merely a massive outrage.

Craig Detweiler is a professor of communication at Pepperdine University and the author of "iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives." The views expressed in this column belong to Detweiler. 

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Death • Ethics • Europe • History • Holocaust • Internet • Media • Opinion • Sacred Spaces • Spirituality • Traditions • Trends

soundoff (705 Responses)
  1. atlwmn

    Having just lost my father, I can see the importance of completing a journey they wished to take together. After studying the Holocaust throughout college, however, I cannot understand how anyone with even a minute bit of research and knowledge of the place could muster a smile, much less broadcast one. It's one thing to take an artistic picture and caption it, "for you dad" or "finally taking the trip" or whatever. It's another to pose, smiling, with earbuds in, treating an emotionally charged historical site like the backdrop of your latest "selfie". Regardless of why you would take the trip there, Auschwitz is not about you. It's about them, it's about history, it's about knowledge (and ignorance). Respect for others and for the past is something that is all but lost in our society, and we will pay for it in the end.

    July 22, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
    • thesamyaza

      if were supposed to feel said for ever one that has dead some were we would walk around the earth with a frown on are face.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:29 pm |
    • skytag

      If you knew any really happy people you'd know why she's smiling. That's what happy people do. They can feel empathy, but they don't let bad things ruin their attitudes.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:34 pm |
      • kwg2252

        No one is condemning her for having a positive state of mind, but rather because her decision to take a selfie, possibly one of the most narcissistic things people do today, is totally disrespectful to the people who died there

        July 22, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
        • skytag

          Not if no disrespect was intended.

          July 22, 2014 at 3:32 pm |
    • igaftr

      Let me ask you...do you think that the people who were sent there never smiled or even laughed while they were there?

      When I visited there, I was very solemn, but I bet I made a joke or two somewhere along the line. It is a part of human nature to use humor in many cases to aleviate the other overwhelming emotion.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:34 pm |
  2. skytag

    She just learned a valuable life lesson, that no matter what you do, there are always miserable people who will try to make you miserable too by attack what you did.

    July 22, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
  3. markaroach

    OMG – too much ado about something her parents have probably already handled. Besides that – how many smiling selfies have been taken at the Roman Colosseum and no one complains about that. I seriously doubt this girl intended ANY disrespect but everyone jumps straight to the worst case. She's not even an adult – still learning life lessons – get over it.

    July 22, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
    • skytag

      There was nothing to handle.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:23 pm |
  4. skytag

    The real problem isn't that Breanna Mitchell was smiling in a picture, it's that there's a significant portion of the population that looks for any excuse to attack people. We have become a truly hateful country, and the anonymity afforded by the Internet only encourages people to act on their darker instincts. It's virtually impossible to post something on the Internet that some segment of the population won't whine about.

    July 22, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
    • Alias

      I'm just going to wait and see if anyone is offended that you are not offended.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:16 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Your baseless and heartless opposition to whining offends my delicate sensibilities.
      Furthermore, your name is an insult to the brave pilots of the aircraft who spray the chemtrails that keep our society functioning.
      You are literally worse than Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot combined!
      (/s)

      July 22, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
    • markaroach

      Agreed! I feel better there are still people who are capable of critical think!

      July 22, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
  5. thesamyaza

    This is what happens when new technologies clash with ancient understandings of the sacred.

    i don't think Auschwitz counts as ancient, then again if you believe the world is only 6000 years old i understand why less then 80 seams like a long time.

    i have already seen selfies at wounded knee, at Emaın Macha, and Tuluwat with cheerfull smiles one the faces. and you know what im sure the spirits are happy its about time we moved on don't you think.

    pluss their is no reason for a christian to be upset about it, Christians caused the holocaust.

    July 22, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
  6. stanleymann

    Oh for crying out loud! So she took a selfie. At least she had the heart to visit the place.
    The world needs to stop being whinners.

    Go to Gaza and take a selfie before the babies and children being killed.
    Now that would be disturbing!

    July 22, 2014 at 1:11 pm |
    • Alias

      I'm sure some day soon they will build a museum for the 'Palistinians' who were displaced and forced to live in horrid conditions.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:14 pm |
  7. rageg

    Stop giving this little girl a PASS(!) Someone failed her. Obviously, there is little reverence being shown for this ghastly, infamous place thru a "selfie". ..and this is her PARENTS' fault. Cudos to her for actually visiting the site. But she should have been taught a little respect from an elder; so that she'd know that a "selfie" at, what is essentially, a mass grave site, is completely disrespectful.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      Judge not lest ye be judged!

      July 22, 2014 at 1:04 pm |
    • thesamyaza

      how many people took selfies at Sachsenhain Halsmühlen this year, were is the outrage 4,500 saxons were executed there for their faith.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm |
    • skytag

      On the contrary, someone failed you. One happy teenager smiles for a picture and you think it's your place to condemn her. It isn't.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:36 pm |
    • rogerthat2014

      Yes you might as well attack the parents too. Perhaps you should go dance on her deceased father's grave.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:36 pm |
    • igaftr

      so no one should take their picture , smiling at Arlington?

      July 22, 2014 at 3:49 pm |
  8. pauleky

    I'm sorry, but after seeing her reaction to the "outrage," it's clear this girl has no idea what she did. If no disrespect was intended, you sure can't tell from her responses. Additionally, check her retweets. Some pretty nasty stuff gets her approval. So much for respect.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
    • LaBella

      Really? Like what? I can't do it because I'm not a follower.

      July 22, 2014 at 3:41 pm |
  9. Alias

    So a young woman smiled while taking a picture. What is the big deal?
    She was not trying to make any political statements.
    People need to stop trying to find excuses to be offended.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:50 pm |
    • James XCIX

      Agreed. It seems some people are only happy when they can also be outraged at something or someone (I partly blame the news media).

      July 22, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      I don't see why this is much different than other selfies that are taken at sites similar to this. It's a photo and people need to stop making it to be more than it is. The very fact that she went there and visited is more than many will ever do, even if the impact of what happened there doesn't sink in right now, we can hope that it eventually does.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:04 pm |
    • skytag

      She looks happy. That offends people who are never happy.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:37 pm |
  10. neverbeenhappieratheist

    Are we sure she isn't a Pod person that just escaped from the Skeksis brutish Garthim? Don't let them drain her essence!

    July 22, 2014 at 12:48 pm |
  11. tbrown17

    This is truly sad. She may have researched the topic, but none of it really sunk in. Maybe in future years she will realize what was going on and be moved to tears as many are, whether they like Jews or not.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:46 pm |
    • skytag

      What's sad is condemning a happy person for not letting a tragedy from the past make her look miserable.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
  12. grivers10

    jeez! get a life people!!
    how is this any different than taking pics of the place with a spouse in the frame?

    July 22, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
    • noahsdadtopher

      I'm wondering what this has to do with belief.

      July 22, 2014 at 12:43 pm |
      • James XCIX

        Hello, Topher –

        I agree (unless it's about whether or not you believe it was wrong to take the selfie).

        July 22, 2014 at 12:45 pm |
        • noahsdadtopher

          Or one of the crazies who deny the holocaust ever happened.

          July 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm |
        • ausphor

          Topher
          Or one of the crazies that believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?

          July 22, 2014 at 1:11 pm |
      • Alias

        It involves a particular group that loves to remind everyone what victoms thay are.

        July 22, 2014 at 1:09 pm |
        • James XCIX

          Well, if I was a member of an often-victimized group I might want to keep people educated about it, too.

          July 22, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
        • Alias

          So you're not Native American?
          Now THAT is a group who have been truely victomized and forgotten.

          July 22, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
        • James XCIX

          "Now THAT is a group who have been truely victomized and forgotten."

          Agreed.

          July 22, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
  13. ryan59479

    In theory, I don't see what's wrong with taking a seflie at a place like Auschwitz...so long as it's done properly. Another article on CNN mentioned that the girl had researched the place, so clearly she knew the history behind it. And that's where I take issue with this particular selfie. Why is she SMILING? Nobody, I repeat NOBODY, should be happy, delighted, or look tickled pink to be standing at Auschwitz.

    If the journey had some sentimental purpose to her, fine, take a selfie. But at least take one that reflects the sobriety and gravity that a place like Auschwitz warrants. To do otherwise just seems ignorant and disrespectful.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:31 pm |
    • skytag

      No one should judge another person the way you're judging her. I see nothing wrong with her being happy to be there. That doesn't mean she's happy about what happened there. Get a life so you don't obsess over stuff like this that isn't any of your business.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:41 pm |
      • ryan59479

        "Get a life so you don’t obsess over stuff like this that isn’t any of your business."

        Practice what you preach.

        July 22, 2014 at 1:42 pm |
        • skytag

          You're a jerk. I called you on it. The kid was happy to be there. It may have been something she's dreamed of doing. Who are you to condemn her for smiling, for God's sakes? Who made you the smile police?

          July 22, 2014 at 1:55 pm |
        • ryan59479

          Says the CNN comment police.

          July 22, 2014 at 2:17 pm |
  14. janegoodhope

    If it sparks interest in touring Auschwitz and dialogue about it, I think it's fine. The point is not to forget the Holocaust.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:29 pm |
  15. proko18

    almost as insensitive as when only Jews are mentioned when talking about the concentration camps as though they were the only ones to suffer.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm |
    • Alias

      I agree 100%.

      July 22, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
  16. jfreud

    I am shocked and appalled at the utter lack of intelligence that permeates throughout this thread.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:19 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      I always find humor in people making comments like that while doing the exact same thing they have just criticized others for...no-one forced you to read the comments, you chose to do it, so skip the hypocrisy.

      July 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm |
  17. noahsdadtopher

    I know a lot of you dislike Ray Comfort, but in one of his movies he has a number of college students on camera saying they don't know who Adolf Hitler was.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Ray Comfort pointing out the ignorance of others...the definition of irony.

      July 22, 2014 at 12:46 pm |
    • MidwestKen

      ...and Jay Walking (tonight show) had people who didn't know who the president was.

      Your point?

      July 22, 2014 at 12:48 pm |
    • ausphor

      Topher
      A lot of people live in their self made bubble of ignorance. There is a fairly good chance that Noah will not know who Charles Darwin was before he enters college.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:17 pm |
      • joey3467

        I am sure that Topher will let Noah know all about what a minion of Satan Darwin was.

        July 22, 2014 at 2:14 pm |
  18. portlandtony

    How many places of extreme sadness and reverence of peoples long since gone have been bulldozed, torn down or built over? History will always remember the story of Anne Frank and the atrocities of the Auschwitz and other concentration camps. But time passes and what's more important is that the memory of events that took places be embedded into our conscience and the actual physical property be left to regenerate and regrow.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      In order for these events to stay in our collective consciousness, it helps to preserve the sites.
      Being there physically elicits a more visceral reaction than classroom learning ever could.
      I can never forget visiting Verdun – seeing the ossaries full of unidentified bones, the killing fields filled with seemingly endless rows of nameless, white crosses, the deafening echoes that ring through the bomb shelters, touching the lichen growing on the walls that were the sole source of moisture and nutrients for those trapped inside...

      There are few sites like that in North America.
      In our wealth we have grown complacent and we forget.
      As the number of survivors from the "great wars:" dwindles to near nothing, the events are rendered abstract to those who have seen war only through glamorized representations.
      We do not have endless killing fields of nameless white crosses to humble us within our borders.
      We do not have human abbatoirs standing in our lands to remind us of how easily the hearts of men are swayed to evil. We do not hear the echoes of the atom bomb that deafen hubris.
      What we forget will define us more than what we remember of those times.
      We can never wane in teaching our children that the relative peace in which we find ourselves today was purchased with a heavy coin made of blood and sacrifice.
      What it bought us as a race is a simple lesson, repeated time and again and yet always seemingly forgotten: That violence and aggression lurks in the depths of all people and only through vigilance can it be kept from coming to the fore.
      Violence begets violence and it takes only a single act to ignite the flames of hatred.
      Never forget.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:15 pm |
      • Alias

        We do have over 10 million dead indians.
        Is there a place in North America where it is okay to smile for a selfie?

        July 22, 2014 at 1:43 pm |
  19. darkunreality

    Everyone gets upset at kids who just don't understand the importance of certain things – but they forget that most kids can't understand. They just don't have that kind of life experience yet – and be grateful they don't!

    When I was a kid, I grew up around a ton of great museums. I toured history museums, art museums, even the Holocaust museum. Did I appreciate the importance of any of them? Not really. Even the Holocaust museum, which we toured after spending weeks on the subject in school – it was really just another piece of history. Something that had already happened. It was over, shouldn't we have learned our lesson and moved on by now? I did the same thing when we studied slavery and civil rights. I simply had no concept of what it was like to hate someone else for their race or religion alone, and in my mind that was ages ago and their couldn't possibly still be people who thought it was okay.

    It was until I was much older that I was able to go back and look at those same subjects and realize why they were so somber and significant still. That there are still people who hate others for no reason at all – enough to kill them and torture them in these ways. In fact, I am still just now discovering exactly how horrific the lives of the prisoners in concentration camps were. Every time you think you've heard the worst, there's something more horrific.

    The point, I guess, is that we've got to stop getting so incredibly worked up that children don't understand the full solemnity of everything they are exposed to. Eventually they will, but they have to get to a time in their lives where they are capable of understanding it first. (And yes, some kids are incredibly mature and do understand, but not all.)

    July 22, 2014 at 12:09 pm |
    • mk

      Well said!

      July 22, 2014 at 12:51 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      Well said.

      July 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm |
    • Alias

      With that much rationality and clear thinking, you may not last too long on this blog.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:11 pm |
    • skytag

      Good points. And we don't need to punish children for being happy.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:52 pm |
      • ibagoalie

        You are really creeping me out with this obsession with 'happy'. Great she's a happy kid, glad for her. Hope she stays that way, but will you can stop now. Cheerleading session is over.

        July 22, 2014 at 3:29 pm |
        • skytag

          Too many people are miserable and angry, always criticizing and bashing other people. I'm sorry if thinking it's okay to be happy creeps you out.

          July 22, 2014 at 3:35 pm |
  20. mezanine10

    The same situation is happening when families visit the 9/11 Memorial. Kids are running around, screaming and playing in the water like it's a playground. And the parents just sit back and let them. They wouldn't allow their children to do that at a funeral so not sure why this idiot girl is taking smiling selfies at a place where thousands of people were executed. Moron.

    July 22, 2014 at 12:06 pm |
    • skytag

      She looks like a happy person smiling for a picture. It's no doubt what she's always done when having her picture taken. Only a real jerk would make an issue of it.

      July 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.