harambe is just the latest attraction at the petting zoo of internet outrage

The recent Cincinnati Zoo incident involving the shooting of an endangered gorilla is merely the latest example of a world where consternation and condemnation is out of control.

by Dean Kissick
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02 June 2016, 11:35pm

Harambe the gorilla was shot and killed to protect a four-year-old boy that had fallen into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, and this presented a classic moral quandary. Had a child's life been saved or had a gorilla been murdered? Was the child really in danger or was the gorilla protecting him? How did he find his way into the enclosure anyway? And most importantly, who was to blame?

That's what's popular at this moment in time: cute things and moral outrage. When a Tokyo zoo held an emergency zebra escape drill featuring a woman in a zebra suit it was shared everywhere because it was cute (eventually she was subdued with a pretend stun gun and captured in a net). When a gorilla was shot in Cincinnati and an innocent child was rescued it was shared everywhere because it caused outrage.

Things weren't always this way. It's surprising actually how often children fall into gorilla enclosures, for instance at Jersey Zoo in 1986 and Brookfield Zoo in 1995. On those occasions people were just happy that the children survived. This time around almost 500,000 have signed the "Justice For Harambe" petition on Change.org, which concludes: "We the undersigned want the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life… We the undersigned actively encourage an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death. Please sign this petition to encourage the Cincinnati Zoo, Hamilton County Child Protection Services, and Cincinnati Police Department hold the parents responsible."

Our ongoing fascination with justice is apparent on an internet brimming with social justice warriors and in the cinemas full of heavy-handed superhero movies. But often the blame is flung in haphazard directions because everyone just follows the crowd.

It seems strange to petition the zoo because why would anyone there want the child taken away from its mother, having allowed a gorilla to die in order that they could be reunited? But across social networks and the mainstream media there has been a rush to blame the mother, Michelle Gregg. Even Anonymous has joined in with a video (attributed to Anonymous Ohio) showing the usual V-For-Vendetta-masked spokesman calling for Gregg to be investigated by Child Protection Services and charged in accordance with the Endangered Species Act, as well as giving out a photograph, address and phone number for her place of work, a preschool in Cincinnati. Is this what Anonymous has come to? Leaving behind the Church of Scientology and Wall Street and the Islamic State in favour of just slagging off a mother that made an unfortunate mistake at the zoo? 

The reaction to Harambe's death has been hysterical. When the original King Kong movie was released in 1933 its poster showed a giant gorilla attacking a woman and rampaging across an American city - but now our sympathies have been reversed and we mourn the giant gorilla while hating the woman. We love to blame people for things and take the moral high ground, and our ongoing fascination with justice is apparent on an internet brimming with social justice warriors and in the cinemas full of heavy-handed superhero movies. But often the blame is flung in haphazard directions because everyone just follows the crowd.

In the summer of 2000 a specialist registrar in paediatric medicine from Wales, Dr Yvette Cloete, had to flee her house after local vigilantes, misunderstanding what a paediatrician was, graffiti-ed "paedo" across her front porch in the middle of the night, inspired by the News of the World's campaign to "name and shame" suspected sex offenders by publishing their names and addresses. This was how witch hunting worked at the turn of the millennium, but today tabloid newspapers have been usurped by social networks and online petitions as the mediums through which moral outrage can be stoked and spread like wildfire. Because of this dubious power the smallest outcry can spark widespread and prolonged protest and create a real mob mentality, and any issue can coaxed to spiral out of control. It feels like everybody wants to be outraged, wants to take sides rather than seek out a compromise. 

It would be better if everyone stopped obsessing over blaming other people for everything wrong with the world. Things like the Justice For Harambe petition suggest we can finger-point the way to a better society, which seems very moralistic.

A Reuters/Ipso poll on the US election last month found that more Trump supporters were supporting him because they didn't want Hillary to win than because they agreed with his politics, and more Hillary supporters were supporting her because they didn't want Trump to win than because they agreed with her politics. If correct this will be an election of anti-votes more than votes, and that is unprecedented and also depressing. It would be better if everyone stopped obsessing over blaming other people for everything wrong with the world, stopped internalising this outraged tabloid mentality, because there's so much anger today but where is it usually directed? Not into revolutionary politics or environmental activism, not into radical music or fashion or art movements, just at one another. Things like the Justice For Harambe petition suggest we can finger-point the way to a better society, which seems very moralistic.

Here's another thing about "Justice For Harambe" - do gorillas actually have a concept of justice and fairness? Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal tackled this subject in a TED talk covering an experiment in which two capuchin monkeys working side by side were paid unequally for the same job, one with cucumber and one with grapes. It's not long before pieces of cucumber are being thrown around the laboratory in anger. De Waal concludes, "I believe there's an evolved morality. I think morality is much more than what I've been talking about, but it would be impossible without these ingredients that we find in other primates, which are empathy and consolation, pro-social tendencies and reciprocity and a sense of fairness."

Maybe we all need more empathy and consolation in our lives, and maybe we all need to behave more like gorillas - after Harambe's death British primatologist Jane Goodall emailed the director of the Cincinnati Zoo, saying, "it is a devastating loss to the zoo, and to the gorillas. How did the others react? Are they allowed to see, and express grief, which seems to be so important."

Credits


Text Dean Kissick 
Image via YouTube

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