December 10, 2013

President Barack Obama (R) and British Prime Minister David Cameron pose for a picture with Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt (C) next to US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

Is President Obama actually taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service? There’s a time and place for everything, but I would argue that the time and place for this is “never.”

I know that this is the kind of minor incident of which much hay and not much history is made, but, really? Seriously? At a memorial for a man that even The Onion thinks was a huge loss to the world, whom President Obama has called a personal hero? Seriously?

You can tell that this is a problem because people are now going out of their way to point out that this wasn’t Nelson Mandela’s funeral, it was Nelson Mandela’s memorial. I guess that somehow makes it better? Does this mean that it won’t wind up on the Funeral Selfies Tumblr? Because it did. That is a nadir, right there. The taking of selfies at moments when we are supposed to be focused on paying our respects to the deceased is one of those few behaviors people seem to agree is a little beyond the pale. It’s the “Nickelback” of etiquette flubs — something that seems so instantly egregious to most folks that you don’t really need to explain why it’s a bad idea.

Except, apparently, you do, because people will always come up with rationales. Here, off the top of my head, is a list of reasons that people incorrectly believe make it acceptable to take a picture of yourself at someone else’s memorial service:

The person next to you is taking one and you don’t want to be rude. It is okay, under these circumstances, to be rude to her. Gently inch away and say, “You really want a picture with me? How about we take it under LITERALLY ANY OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER?”
You are trying to blackmail two other world leaders into having damning memorial service selfies of themselves taken and the only way is to get involved yourself. I guess this is possibly justifiable in theory, but it still feels wrong.
You’re really important. This is not an acceptable reason

Here are instances when it is acceptable to take a memorial selfie:

You got bitten by a snake and you need to upload the photo to your doctor at a remote location to see what to do next about the bite
Someone is sneaking up behind you with a cleaver and you need to blind him with the flash

And even then, you do so with a pained expression, knowing that the other people there will wonder why you seem to think it is so vitally important that you take a picture of yourself in this precise moment.

I know people often say, “Oh, this funeral is stuffy, and the deceased would not have wished for it.” The person might have thought the ceremony was silly, but that doesn’t entitle you to start emitting barbaric yawps from the sixth row. There’s respect for the ceremony and respect for the person. There’s a decorum to maintain. Especially when the cameras are on! This isn’t about you — or about the lady in the seat next to you.

In fact, I take it back about the snakebite rationale. Excuse yourself and do it in the bathroom.

I know President Obama said of Mandela that “It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection — because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried — that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble. He was a man of flesh and blood, a son and husband, a father and a friend.” I know nobody’s perfect. But Michelle Obama’s expression says it all.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.