Trigger Warning for content referencing themes such as racism, rape, genocide, violence, and animal cruelty.
The word ‘Harambe’, depending on whom it’s spoken to, triggers a range of intriguing rants and reactions. For those who find themselves blank, allow me to refresh your memory.
Image Source: The BBC
In the year 2016, a young boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at an American zoo after crawling over the fence whilst his caretaker was distracted. As onlookers noisily panicked, Harambe, the silverback gorilla, came close to the boy and started to handle him in an aggressive manner. Seeing no alternative way to safely calm the animal and retrieve the boy, Harambe was gunned by a zoo official to safeguard the child. Following the video of the incident, the story exploded and from primatologists to political scientists, everyone has an opinion.
First of all, there were accusations of racism, when many pointed out that the public display of grief for a zoo animal by Americans far outmatched the outrage they displayed when fellow black citizens were the victims of police brutality and killings.
Meanwhile, others were of the opinion that a wild animal removed from its natural habitat and shot to death in a zoo was a gross injustice, since an animal in a space meant to protect it should not have been killed due to human error.
Some even suggested that the gorilla’s life should have been prioritized over that of the child’s, whether for economic or environmental reasons.
You may notice that the linked pages are all far from being what one might call “reliable” news sites. Though all three sources are inherently biased in their own way, I chose them not to support or condemn a particular stance, but to show the tensions and conflicts that arise when vastly different ethical standpoints clash in media.
Anthropocentrism is defined as a human-centered point of view. It means perceiving the world in a way wherein humans are at the epicenter of life and all other environments and organisms exist primarily for their utilization. Even the seemingly innocent statements taught to us in school such as “the sun helps plants make food so that we can eat them for energy” are examples of this way of thinking. Quite naturally, Anthropocentrism is a survival tool that rules our very lives as humans and instructs us in our priorities for self-preservation, though it once again generates a new set of arguments.
Take the case of vegetarianism and/or veganism. Those who follow such lifestyles for what they claim are ethical reasons often face criticism from social activists who point out how their ethical concern for animals often comes with brutal consequences for those who produce their substitute foods under oppressive conditions.
When the controversial animal activism company PETA opened an exhibit in 2003 known as “Holocaust on Your Plate” that compared agricultural practices to the atrocities perpetuated against Jewish prisoners in World War 2 concentration camps, the backlash was severe and swift.
While the famous quote, “[…] all people are Nazis” [to animals] is used to explain this comparison and came from the eminent Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, many today find this juxtaposition loathsome and disrespectful to those who perished in the concentration camps, including cherished family members and ancestors.
A pertinent issue is the question of whether or not comparisons can be drawn between human and animal suffering and if doing so ‘demeans’ humans, suggesting that on some level we naturally think of animals as occupying a lower and less significant existence than the people around us. This is anthropocentrism.
Image: Benjamin Faust via Unsplash
Another issue is whether or not feminists can drink milk, since it is produced by the artificial insemination of female cows in an invasive and forceful process that many animal activists liken to rape. While again the linked source is not one I would call “hard journalism,” I reference it here so that idea conveyed can be debated. Many feminists disagree on whether or not using terms such as “rape” and “sexual assault” and “nonconsensual” in the context of animals is accurate or acceptable. But once again, take a statement such as “cows in factory farms are raped to produce milk”—the idea that this sentiment could trivialize the suffering of human victims and survivors of rape once again suggests that grouping cows and rape victims together is distasteful and that animal and human pain should be considered on separate levels (usually with humans ranking higher up). This idea is once again an anthropocentric notion.
Other questions crop up. Is it cruelty to raise a dog on a vegan diet? What is one to do if switching to cruelty-free products (such as artificial leather and wool) means generating more non-degradable plastic? Is it unethical to eat cashews for protein instead of slaughtering animals for meat if human workers labor under horrific conditions? Again and again, we see the intersections and violent collisions of anthropocentrism and biocentrism (a stance focused on all animals).
Contradictions such as these force us to take a hard look at our own ethics and find out exactly how anthropocentric we are in our way of thinking. Do our politics of equality and justice stop at humans alone or are a few pets and panda bears and gorillas thrown in while cows and pigs remain excluded? And to what extent are we able (and willing) to make adjustments in our lives to reduce pain for creatures other than those of our own species? How about within our own species? Are human activists too selfish to muster empathy for animals? Are animal activists too ignorant to calculate human repercussions?
Image: Luke Stackpoole via Unsplash
For this reason, I believe that the perfect activist movement cannot exist. All anthropocentric movements will (and must) ultimately oppress animals to uplift human well-being, since the vast majority of the human population subsists on meat and fish and exploits animals in various ways for livelihood and survival. In turn biocentric movements will (and must) oppress humans since any form of animal activism that limits itself to human parameters of decency or political correctness to avoid oppressing humans is ultimately an anthropocentric movement and not for the animals at all.
I believe a balanced world requires both these ideologies, and rather than competing for domination, they need to open a dialogue with each other, to come up with a solution that benefits all and harms none.
Unfortunately, due to the inherent values of these opposed movements and the circumstances of our world today, I fear it’s nothing more than wishful thinking.