Blog: My Personal Blog

The Death of Tilikum at SeaWorld and Our Own Moral Decay


 

How unbearable. Tilikum of Blackfish fame has died at SeaWorld, and I am angry—again—and I am raging on social media—again. So, too, are many others.

The collective outpouring of grief on behalf of a killer whale may strike some as questionable. People wonder: Why do we react with fury and indignation at the suffering of animals when human beings are suffering every day?

Take, for example, the death of Cecil the lion. Back in July 2015, I was taken to task by a friend for flippantly wishing a visit from karma upon the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil. In a world full of violence, she wondered, how could I essentially call for more violence, and against a human being? I wasn’t really doing so. Social media often functions as a repository for the venting of one’s spleen, and is not generally confused with fatwa-like calls for the deaths of others. But her comment did get me thinking.

CecilI wonder if one of the reasons the deaths of “Tilly,” Cecil the lion, Marius the giraffe, Sateo the elephant, Harambe the gorilla and other iconic megafauna trouble us so is because our childhoods were infused with books and movies and mythology of these great beasts. They are deeply embedded in not only our earliest memories, but in our own moral development, which was carefully cultivated with animals as literary devices in the stories our parents passed down to us. Ferdinand the bull and Dumbo the elephant taught us lessons about how to be better humans. Aesop’s fables helped us learn right from wrong, good from bad, safe from unsafe.

In contrast, the human beings who capture, keep, and kill animals are archetypal villains, determined to exploit the animal kingdom for their personal gain.

Whether media is a mirror or a magnifying glass, it plays an indisputable role in whipping up global outrage. Most of us crying out in anguish over cruelty toward animals, myself included, actually participate in it thoughtlessly.

MariusPerhaps we eat meat, or use cosmetics tested on animals, or wear leather. We might eat organic free-range meat that is humanely butchered, as I do, and justify it by explaining that the animals had happy, dandelion-filled lives in sunny pastures. Maybe we do not patronize seaquariums or circuses. But in our hearts, we all know we’ve damaged many species on Earth—our own included.

I do things to get myself through the shame. I watch baby elephant videos, and lose my mind over anything to do with walruses, and follow animal conservation sites, and obsess over the happiness of my pets. I apply all of these behaviors like a balm.

How do most of us persevere in the face of this? We boycott. We donate. We sign and share petitions. By doing these measly things, we feel better, because we are doing something, but on a deeper level we are devastated by the gravity of what can’t be fixed.

Sateo Into this internalized culpability comes the news of dog meat festivals in China or an impassioned video by a veterinarian about an abused kitten. Or, we look at our Facebook newsfeed and watch a ticker tape speed by of articles about Tilikum, clicking Facebook’s new “Angry” emoticon on every one of them.

Animal suffering seems to pierce the thick skin we have built up to numb ourselves to what we are doing to our fellow creatures. The mistreatment and exploitation of animals represents a colossal failure of stewardship on our part, as well as the most unfathomable moral decay, rendered especially painful when we consider the role these animals played in our childhood moral development to begin with. We are traitors. Animal innocence has the unique power to break through our denial. We are animals too, but we live increasingly out of sync with nature and have all means of justification for what 7.3 billion individual humans are doing to millions of other species—and to each other.

HarambeI am feeling the pain of my skin being torn—a profound disgust for humanity filtered through a moment of recognition, a glance in the mirror. There is exquisite vulnerability in the realization of our own fleeting existence and its disproportionately disastrous effect on the only habitable environment we know of as it spins through the cosmos.

When people ask, How can we care more about a dead orca than we do about human-on-human atrocities? I think it’s the wrong question. We can care about it all. And we can stop elevating the value of human life over other life, since that’s what has gotten us into this mess in the first place.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA, and the author of Her Next Chapter.

Photo credits

Tilikum: National Geographic News

Cecil: The Vegan Voice

Maurius: TreeHugger

Sateo: The Telegraph

Harambe: The Mirror

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Anomie: A Good Reason to Live on a Boat?

Let’s start with a definition:

definition

Émile Durkheim was a 19th century French sociologist whose work focused on how societies could maintain cohesion in the modern world. By anomie, Durkheim referred to “a state when too-rapid population growth reduces the amount of interaction between various groups, which in turn leads a breakdown of understanding (norms, values, and so on).”

I studied Durkheim in graduate school and was so taken with the concept of anomie that I applied for an ANOMIE vanity plate for my car, but it was already taken in Virginia, and again in Massachusetts when I moved here. I must confess to having kept my eyes peeled for this license plate for over 30 years, but I’ve never seen it.

I am suffering the most extreme anomie these days, and it would be easy to blame it on politics, or social media, or the fact that no one replies to emails anymore and I can’t get my work done. The truth is that life is full of petty annoyances, but for most people, they don’t add up to the desire to have a fire sale on their home and all their worldly possessions so that they can buy a houseboat and chase the good weather. I am not most people.

It’s been over 150 years since Durkeim first described the anxiety people can feel as they experience certain widescale breakdowns in communication and behavioral standards. If I could speak to the dead, I would tell Durkheim, “You had no idea. Really, you didn’t.”

Durkheim never experienced the internet commentariat. He lived in an era when people who were angry had to tell you to your face, or dip a quill in an inkwell, write a pointed letter, blot it, stick it in an envelope, apply sealing wax, and deliver it on foot or by horse-drawn courier.

Everyone is so angry now, but we have computers to serve as vectors of our ire, and by bypassing even the telephone, it has become standard for disagreements to have no possible in-the-moment, mutual resolutions. Emails, texts, social media messages and internet comments are all screen-based delivery systems for one-way transmissions that in no way resemble reciprocal conversation. Much is lost. Anxiety goes up. A feeling sets in that human society is unraveling. Fantasies of fleeing the pain to something like this

yacht

or this

sailboat

or even this

houseboat

become brainworms that are harder and harder to push aside.

Is this even a reasonable thing to consider, or is it possibly the sanest thing I could do?

It’s not just technology and its attendant malaise that make me question whether this human race thing is going to work out. It’s that in-person conversation has also become so shallow. So truncated. So interrupted by smart phone beeps. So self-absorbed. I now need more than two hands to count the number of casual friends and acquaintances who only talk about themselves and their kids, and have (almost) literally never asked me a single question about myself. They were not raised by wolves, but something went awry in their upbringing. If I were rude I’d blurt out, “so do you want to hear about my kid?” or “any interest whatsoever in my job?” but that would be like firing a gun at a steel wall and waiting for the ricochet.

Anomie is not a pose. It’s what gets me through each day and puts my anxiety into some kind of intellectual framework that makes sense to me. When I think to myself that society has collapsed, I try to practice gratitude, and concentrate on how lucky I am for all of the wonderful things in my life, especially my husband—the one I want to drive our boat and handle the routine sewage pump-outs. He’s also the one who gives me hope that there are enough people with the kind of hearts that are needed to hold civilization together.

I’ll never live on a boat, but it’s fun to daydream about. I’ve carved out a meaningful life for myself, and the older I get, the more I treasure those people who can go deep with me. Anomie is the wallpaper not of my life, but of a room in my house that I try to walk past, still finding myself inhabiting it more than is healthy. Do you get sucked into that room, too? Want to go out to lunch and not talk about the weather? Give me a ring.

 

 

 

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