What can the slow-motion death of Sea World teach us about the state of our culture? A lot, if you have an eye for key similarities. Let me tell you a whale of a tale.
The recent death of Tilikum the orca, the subject of the flashpoint documentary “Blackfish,” has the online animal rights community in a frenzy. Over at Salon, former trainer and “Blackfish” interviewee John Hargrove calls the bull killer whale’s death another “cry for help” from captive members of its species, which the producers of “Blackfish” and other activists insist are incompatible with captivity. The piece is as schmaltzy as it is devoid of substance, with laments for Tilikum’s separation from his “family” at age two, his “sterile confinement,” and the “suffering” he endured (as if wild orcas live carefree lives). Hargrove offers every anthropomorphism we’ve grown accustomed to, without giving any indication that he ever personally worked with Tilikum (I could find no evidence that he had).
My purpose is not to defend captivity of killer whales or other marine mammals, though I think it’s completely fine, but to point out a fascinating feature of the ongoing popular siege of Sea World and other marine theme parks.
You can’t discount older cultural artifacts like “Free Willy,” but the Tilikum controversy really kicked off the cottage industry of speaking and writing about whales as if they’re oppressed people.
“Blackfish” famously advanced the claims that captivity “psychologically damages” orcas and other marine mammals, that these animals deliberately beach themselves in order to “commit suicide,” and that killing or attacking trainers is a premeditated “cry for help.” The documentary and those interviewed speak of killer whales having “families” and “homes,” and experiencing a whole slew of human emotions like love, grief, anger, and joy. Why do we speak this way about marine predators?
Part of the answer is the Disney-fication of animals in general, especially cute and ostensibly cuddly ones. Americans no longer buy dogs or cats, we “adopt” them. We’re not their owners, we’re their “parents.” There’s an entire movement dedicated to infantilizing more aggressive breeds like pit bulls, and national parks regularly deal with visitors who suffer the consequences of getting too close to wild animals. Of course, we hardly need rehearse the apocalyptic backlash after Harambe the gorilla was shot to save a little boy’s life.
But human empathy has its limits. You seldom see online activists making a fuss over alligators, for instance. They certainly didn’t after authorities killed the gator presumed responsible for another small boy’s tragic death in Florida, last June. Alligators are cold and scaly, and haven’t been sentimentalized like apes, hunting dogs, or other mammals that regularly kill or injure humans. The fact that there’s never been a children’s movie entitled “The Gator King” might explain why Cecil the lion prompted so much more outrage.
On the scale between alligators and lions, it’s not difficult to see killer whales and other raptorial cetaceans falling somewhere in the middle. They’re not fuzzy, they’re not warm to the touch (I’ve sat on one), and they mainly visit our dry world in order to drag something warm and fuzzy into the water, where they torture and eat it.
So why do we care so much? Why has the campaign to reveal the plight of captive orcas and make Sea World pay gained so much momentum? The answer, of course, is Sea World itself.
No one, or at least very few people, would care about killer whales were it not for the decades of glowing exposure and fawning portrayals Sea World and similar marine parks have given them. Just look at how whales were portrayed in centuries past. Sea World has shown us these animals’ intelligence, their social nature, their sense of playfulness, and the moments when they display something that reminds us a little of love.
It was this exposure that turned sea monsters into Lisa Frank emblems, just as it was the exposure by ancient man’s fireside that turned hungry wolves into our best friends. Killer whales are, after all, “the wolves of the sea.” But if Sea World taught us to think of orcas as creatures capable of love, it also taught us to think of them as creatures capable of hate, despair, and insanity. From there, it’s a short step into the deep end of the animal rights pool.
Sea World was its own undoing—a victim of its own enormous success. A generation raised on the majesty of Shamu has done what it’s been taught to do. We are taking the next step in rehabilitating monsters. Sea World catechized us in the wonder of whales. “Blackfish” reasoned that whales are so wonderful, they’re people. And when you keep people who’ve done nothing wrong locked up, it’s called slavery.
This is a microcosm of the evolution of our culture. All of modern liberalism, even the animal rights movement, is built on centuries of catechesis—Christian catechesis, to be precise. But instead of training the masses to value whales, Christianity trained them to value the downtrodden, oppressed, and marginalized.
As Tim Keller argues in “The Reason for God,” the European paganism which preceded Christianity lacked any concern for the weak. To an Anglo-Saxon chief of the fifth century, mercy and compassion were weaknesses to be stamped out, not values to cultivate. Even Roman commentators scorned Christianity as a “religion of women and slaves.” And as historians Rodney Stark and Alvin J. Schmidt document, the rights and welfare of children, the disabled, the sick, most women, and others on the lowest rungs of society were largely concepts introduced by Christians.
It was these centuries of reconditioning which modern liberalism drew upon in its campaigns to end segregation, win women the right to vote, and end child labor. But somewhere along the way, the moorings which bound these campaigns to the worldview that inspired them were cut.
In “Bad Religion,” Ross Douthat goes so far as to classify liberalism as a Christian heresy. “I describe heresy as a form of belief that tends to emphasize certain elements of the Christian synthesis while downgrading or dismissing other aspects of that whole,” he writes in Slate. “And it isn’t surprising that liberalism, which after all developed in a Christian civilization, does exactly that, drawing implicitly on the Christian intellectual inheritance to ground its liberty-equality-fraternity ideals. Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all. No ideal of universal human rights without Jesus’ radical upending of social hierarchies (including his death alongside common criminals on the cross). No separation of church and state without the gospels’ ‘render unto Caesar’ and St. Augustine’s two cities. No liberal confidence about the march of historical progress without the Judeo-Christian interpretation of history as an unfolding story rather than an endlessly repeating wheel.”
Modern liberalism is deracinated Christianity. Its beliefs in tolerance, equality, freedom, and altruism are borrowed beliefs. The irreligious liberal has no idea why he cherishes these values. But not only do they not make sense without the foundation of their mother-worldview; they become excuses for new varieties of coercion, deception, and perversion—even, in the case of abortion, murder.
And of course, liberalism in the West has finally turned openly against Christianity, using borrowed language and values to condemn the faith in which it first put down roots. The family, which Christians have always taught protects women and nurtures children, has become an instrument of oppression. The same with marriage, created genders, and individual liberty. And irony of ironies, the Christian idea of equal and inalienable rights endowed by a Creator—a safeguard meant to protect the most vulnerable from violence—has been twisted to justify the taking of the most vulnerable lives.
A little over a century ago, Christians in liberal denominations allowed the admirable campaign for social justice to overshadow the worldview that justified it. Today their descendants are openly attacking that worldview. I’m reminded irresistibly of how Sea World allowed the push for public love and awareness of marine mammals to become too sentimental—to override that central commitment to the uniqueness of human beings that made it acceptable to have dominion. Today their own enraged catechumens are overrunning them. Sadly, the result for orcas will be less funding and manpower for conservation. The result for our civilization will be—has been—less real justice and freedom, even as our demands for both grow ever louder.
As I said, it’s a whale of a tale.