Harambe the Gorilla, Animal Rights, and Cultural Hegemony
Dear friends, I recently read an editorial about the killing of Harambe that inspired me to write this blog post. The article, entitled The Elephant in the Room for the Animal Rights Movement, opened with this statement: "The killing of the gorilla Harambe is sad. But in choosing between its [emphasis mine] life and that of a human child, the choice was obvious." Well, perhaps the choice was obvious to some, but I don’t think it was to everyone, as evidenced by the opposition to Harambe’s killing. More and more people are beginning to question whether humans should automatically be granted privilege when compared with other animals. From the first statement in this article it became clear to me that the author had a particular viewpoint about animals. We know Harambe was a male, yet the author chose to refer to him as an "it" as though he was an inanimate object. He was not. He was a living, breathing, feeling being.
The next paragraph in the editorial is as follows: "Is it proper to kill an endangered gorilla to save a four-year-old boy? Of course it is [emphasis mine]. And the reasons why lay bare the philosophical flim-flammery behind so much of the burgeoning animal rights movement." The assuredness with which the author makes this statement is arrogant ("philosophical flim-flammery"?). Claims about the supremacy of humans are typical of the dominant ethic regarding animals in our society. Killing Harambe, an endangered species, because he was not a human but may have threatened a human child, was a decision many people did question. Still, animal rights activists often come up against inane suppositions about what it would mean to extend some rights to animals: "If we give rights to apes, then what next? Worms?" The author of the editorial demonstrates that sort of narrow, singular, and un-nuanced thinking when s/he suggests that "Accepting inherent animal rights means claiming a bizarre equivalency between running over a squirrel with your car, and hitting an elderly pedestrian. Or between shooting an endangered gorilla and letting a four-year-old boy die at his hand. But these are not equivalent options: a boy’s life is unquestionably more valuable." The word I take exception to the most in the preceding paragraph is "unquestionably." People are questioning the value of animal lives, and we should.
When people portray animal rights as something that is only viewable in black and white terms, then no thought is put into negotiating other potential outcomes for animals. What if it had not been believed, automatically and without question, that it was necessary to shoot Harambe to spare a child? What if Harambe had been thought of as being deserving of, if not rights, at least some consideration in the situation with the child? If the interests of animals were considered, even to a minor extent, perhaps deeper thought and effort might be expended to determine what more humane solutions might look like and how they could be achieved. Policies about how to deal with situations like Harambe's might become more comprehensive and considerate of the interests of both parties in such encounters. In the face of negative backlash from people who shout that animals have no rights and therefore, in their minds, no interests, we are correct to challenge the deep-seated notion that whenever there is tension between animals and humans, solutions must always consider the human’s interests over those of the animal.
When I was in university I learned about the concept of "cultural hegemony." The "culture" in cultural hegemony refers to our society’s values, mores, and beliefs and the ways in which they are imparted to members of that culture. Not only our thoughts, but our ways of being (including with regard to animals), have been influenced deeply by our culture's religious teachings and the scientific revolution, for instance. This information shapes what we think and believe about animals. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines hegemony as "the dominance of one group over another, often supported by legitimating norms and ideas." From the moment we are born we are indoctrinated into the dominant culture’s "culturally appropriate" ways of knowing, thinking and being. When we confront or defy these deeply-entrenched and treasured cultural norms, we may be ridiculed for our devious thoughts and pressured into conformity. As is noted in this article written by Stephen Duncombe, "the power of cultural hegemony lies in its invisibility." When we are indoctrinated into the belief systems of the dominant culture from birth, they seem natural to us. We don’t question our values; they are simply a part of us.
The Macleans editorial is the perfect example of how someone in the "dominant group" in our society thinks and feels about animals relative to humans. S/he does not question to the slightest degree whether it was right to shoot Harambe to save a child. Instead, s/he operates on autopilot, espousing the dominant viewpoint about the role of animals in our society by suggesting that killing Harambe to save a little child was a necessity. But once we understand cultural hegemony, we are able to think critically and challenge this author’s assertions. Furthermore, rather than "animal rights" and its supporters being wrong, perhaps we are absolutely correct to challenge archaic modes of thought. As author Stephen Duncombe notes in his explanation of cultural hegemony, "no culture, however, is completely hegemonic. Even under the most complete systems of control, there are pockets of . . . 'counter-hegemonic' cultures: ways of thinking and doing that have revolutionary potential because they run counter to the dominant power." The animal rights movement is counter-hegemonic and has revolutionary potential. Those who work to advance animal rights have absolutely nothing to apologize for. On the contrary, it is their duty to challenge cultural hegemony and ideologies about animals that people in the dominant culture continue to cling to. If dominant cultural beliefs about animals continue to be challenged and are subsequently reshaped, out-dated ways of thinking about, and being with, animals will become a distant memory.