Saturday, June 4, 2016

Harambe, politics and the social media echo chamber

In the echo chamber that is social media, ideas quickly blow up and become polarised. This week, a 17 year old western lowland gorilla was shot when a three year old boy fell into the enclosure. It appears that experts largely agree this was the only course of action. Thank God the child was largely unhurt. One can only wonder what would have happened had Harambe the gorilla not been shot, of if the child had fallen into the enclosure of a carnivore like a big cat.

Now one cannot have an issue that the gorilla was shot to protect a child's life. However, much of the social media echo chambering and political footballing concerns me.

Early on, people were asking why it was the the gorilla was shot - could there have been another way, like tranquilizing? It seems this would have been too slow. Others questioned whether or not the gorilla needed shooting at all. Was Harambe being protective of the child as Jane Goodall thought it might? Anyone who has seen David Attenborough's footage with mountain gorillas knows that they are capable of great tenderness towards each other, and humans. And yet a male's first responsibility is to protect his own. No, we must accept what happened. No doubt in time, the questions will be answered about the enclosure, and whether or not it was sufficiently safe for the child, and the gorilla. Likewise, we need to be very slow in blaming the family.

But I'm concerned about the polarisation that has occurred. There are some who are quick to mock those of us who show genuine concern over the fate of non-humans, for political and or religious reasons. To care for a gorilla is not to care less for the child, or for refugees as some would contest, using this incident as a political springboard. Yes, coverage of moral issues is skewed, but do we belittle one set of issues (non-human moral status and extinction risks) for another (our concern over refugees). I'm not convinced two wrongs make a right.

I saw recently a blog that said that one human was of more value than a million gorillas - the image of God theological argument. My response is, what kind of calculation is that? Isn't that providing the wrong answer to the wrong question in this case? Doesn't this kind of approach feed exactly into the predicament of this species being endangered in the wild?

The other kinds of responses are equally silly. Calling the killing of a non-human murder , even one as closely related to us as a gorilla, is wrong headed. We do not have to directly equate the death of a gorilla and a human as morally equivalent to understand that this was a tragic event. Would those people rather that the child died instead? Maybe Peter Singer might make this argument, but not a Christian thinker like myself.

The calls for gorillas not to be kept in zoos is a more complex one, but also a knee jerk reaction here, as they are endangered in the wild. If zoos can help keep this species alive (and that includes obviously providing a safe space for them), then there they should stay. Releasing any zoo animal back into the wild is not that simple.

To summarise then: I'm grateful the child is alive, though I'm saddened it has come at the loss of a creature both endangered and a magnificent work of the creator God. The reactions on both ends miss the point and just seem like an exercise in stone throwing across the divide. Once more, social media seems incapable of supporting a reasoned discussion or reaching some kind of understanding between people. Perhaps I'm just ranting, but it's only that I care about three year old children, displace refugees, and a natural world that's dying. And all these things matter.

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