scapegoating, nature, and narcissism: some thoughts on the cincinnati zoo incident

scapegoating, nature, and narcissism: some thoughts on the cincinnati zoo incident June 3, 2016


Reactions to the recent disastrous accident at the Cincinnati Zoo which resulted in the shooting death of a beloved gorilla to save the life of a mischievous child has been troubling, yet instructive. Here is a classic showcase of everything you may expect in the world of internet outrage: the rapid taking of sides, the rush to conclusions without sufficient knowledge about either parenting or gorillas. Here, as in many instances of activism, we are apparently meted out finite portion of empathy, so that it is impossible both to mourn for the death of the gorilla and defend the rights of the family that has been thrown into so unwelcome a spotlight. And, invariably, we are assured by certain self-styled pro-life factions that it is impossible to regret the death of an endangered animal as long as abortion is still happening (these are the same who say it is impossible to denounce the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki under these circumstances, however, so perhaps the best bet is to back slowly away).

And as always, the scapegoat mechanism is in place. It is somehow necessary to identify someone who is at fault, whether it be the family, or the zookeepers. Some public denunciation is necessary, some societal cleansing. It is curious that the notion of societal cleansing, the purging of the weak link or the unfit or the sub-human, is a tenet of both practical conservatism and pragmatic progressivism, so no one seems willing to admit that maybe, no one was at fault. Maybe, as in every tragedy, the situation itself was just rigged with inherent dangers, conflicting goods. Tragedy itself is linked to our need for scapegoating, as the tragic hero becomes both a corruption and a salvation, both a blessing and a curse. The ancient scapegoat was sent out into the wilderness, or burned for the appetite of the gods – but first bedecked with flowers, or painted with colors, arrayed with jewels. But modernity (and, even if we are post-modern, we are still modern, too, in our institutions and education) – forgets about the flowers, forgets that the sacrifice was holy. Perhaps this is partially because, post-Christianity, we know on some level that we no longer require a scapegoat, since the perfect and spotless innocent victim has already paid the price for us. So when we scapegoat now, it is without religious dignity. It is a wholly secular response to the demands made on our souls by the phenomenon of Otherness – whether we direct it at animals, the unborn, the racial other, the poor, the disabled, the refugee, even the criminal.

In “Death of a Gorilla: A Sentimental Holocaust,” Jonathan Ryan rightly identifies a troubling sentimentality driving the outrage over the shooting of Harambe.

Evil in Germany didn’t come through hate. It came through loving other things so much you’d be willing to wipe out entire groups of people in the gas chamber. Even more chilling, you do it convinced you’re right and just, with your hand over your heart and a smile.

This sentimentality is what drives us, repeatedly, to reshape nature in our own image, because we are unable to respect it unless it resembles us. This is evident in our preference for those species that are closest to our own, gorillas as opposed to, say, hyenas – or snakes – or vultures. It is evident in our outpouring of funds and energy into projects of demonstrating that the “higher animals” (meaning, animals more like us) are just as linguistically skilled or adept at problem-solving as we are. It is evident even in our search for “intelligent life” in the universe, as we carry on thoughtlessly destroying “unintelligent life” on earth. We bend over nature like Narcissus over his forest pool, seeking ever our own dreaming face, that “tormenting, mild image” of which Melville wrote, in his tale of a man obsessed with killing.

Our reshaping of nature requires that we pretend it is essentially benign towards us. When we seek to defend a frequently maligned species – pitbulls, for instance – we hasten to assert that these animals are sweet, harmless, loving. God looked at all that he had made and said that it was good, even knowing what creation would become. But we are unable to label nature “good” without the relativistic requirement that it be “nice to us.” And so, defenders of the gorilla Harambe assert that gorillas are sweet and gentle, that Harambe was actually trying to protect the child, while at the same time admitting that gorillas are strong, and that the noise may have provoked him to act in self-defense.

This bothers me. Why do we need to imagine that a creature raised in captivity must necessarily be docile, in order to deserve not to be shot? Why does Harambe need to be humanized – his connection with his keepers emphasized – for us to perceive his dignity as a living thing? While certainly endangered creatures are entitled to special protection, we seem too quick to assume that other creatures are mere specimens representing an overpopulated class, that they have no rights as entities of their own. Following Max Scheler, I think that morality involves not only rights, but bonds of obligation, and the adults had an obligation to save the child – but that doesn’t mean Harambe was without rights. Perhaps, though, his rights were violated long before that event.

As I wrote earlier, in “Disturbing Nature,” nature is violent but innocent:

“Nature’s violence helps keep a kind of balance, so our human intrusion into it can be disruptive. We need to be cautious in how we disturb these natural balances, and mindful of our responsibility to enter as much as possible into nature without malign influence. Unfortunately our legacy with nature – our oil fields and coal mines and landfills, even our methods of building communities and traveling – tend to disturb natural balances without doing much to mitigate violence, since we are violent, too, only in different ways. Two roosters may kill each other out of desire for dominance, but only humans wage war.”

I love a trip to the zoo, but as Andrew C. Revkin wrote recently, perhaps it is time to rethink zoos, especially in light of emerging research on non-human personhood: “In the long run, this is a good time for humans to begin reassessing our relationship with captive animals on many levels, and reassess how we experience “wild” life.”

Are animals really wild? Or are we the wild ones?

We are, apparently, in some way, different. Not necessarily more intelligent: I follow Max Scheler in questioning “rational animal” as a satisfactory designation of difference. I prefer Josef Pieper’s idea that humans are not essentially confined to environment, that we have a kind of “world-openness” to all that is, and this explains both the magnificence and the horror of our works – it is also connected to our religious sense, our straining towards the infinite, which gives us the capacity both to empathize with beings utterly different from ourselves – and to destroy everything in our path, including ourselves. It is ironic that in our quest to overcome all boundaries, we have enclosed other animals within boundaries of our own making, for the sake of our own increased experience.

But perhaps all creatures are different. Perhaps gorillas have a religious sense distinct from our own. Perhaps all creation truly does sing the glory of God but in voices to which we are not yet attuned.

The situation at the Cincinnati Zoo was tragic, because there is something tragic in our relation with nature as such, and violence is woven into the way different things relate on different levels – there is violence in the survival of a species, violence in the advance of civilization, violence even in the curing of a disease. We seek to empathize with nature, to understand it, to enlarge our purlieus, as we engage with nature, but such engagement can often paradoxically hinge upon varieties of violence.

This is why I can’t buy into any utopian narrative about curing all ills through humanitarian means, especially since so many utopian narratives – religious or secular – themselves involve violence. Though I also reject the nihilistic idea that we should just give up and hope for some transcendent cure.

We do not need to blame anyone, because this is how the worlds turn. We should mourn the death of Harambe for his own sake, empathize with the fear and suffering of the boy’s family: if there isn’t empathy enough to go around, we hope God will make up the difference. We hope someday we will understand that the sacrifice of Jesus wipes out all need for scapegoating. We hope for healing, somehow, of the sickness at the heart of things.

We hope.


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