A good deal of digital ink was spilled over the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo, and it is already fading from our collective consciousness: the 4-year-old boy who fell into the enclosure, and the 17-year-old western lowland gorilla, Harambe, who was put down by the zoo in order to protect the child. There were the usual recriminations when tough decisions have to be made and the usual outrage about the death of an animal, particularly an endangered one.
Taking the time to analyze situations — investigating, asking questions, or playing “what if,” assuming we don’t couple those things with outrage, threats, or abuse — can be helpful. One of the few ways our response to challenges may improve is through asking tough questions. But in this and other recent situations, few people are actually engaging in anything constructive (though some pretty good memes were inspired by it; see below).
Several articles have discussed the situation from Christian perspectives; our friends over at Mockingbird wrote two of them. Sarah Condon’s piece was a thoughtful and compelling plea for grace, reminding us that we are all closer than we realize to our own 15 minutes of public shame and scorn:
Life is full of gorilla pit failures. But we live in a culture that is only interested in talking about failure if there is a perceived victory to absolve the mistake. We long to control and to rise up from our lives, but there is no victory here. A boy was almost killed and his parents will be wounded forever. There is no “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” that will fix their hearts after such a terrifying moment. Certainly the newsfeed backlash must make the entire experience so much worse. Sometimes terrible things happen, and there are no mechanisms for blame that will make anyone feel better. (“You Are One Day Away From Being Tabloid News: Why We Are All the Gorilla Pit Mom,” Mockingbird [June 1])
And Eric Dorman (full disclosure: a friend and parishioner of mine) has written about how the response to this event and our culture of perpetual outrage reflect our own failings and sinfulness:
And before anyone starts to feel smug, let’s remember that Outrage’s psyche comprises more than one part. Right and left, young and old, religious and non, Buckley and Vidal — we’ve all created this monster. The beast is our child. (“Feeding the Beast: Grace for an Outraged World,” Mockingbird [June 2])
Indeed, Dorman reflects, we aren’t just purveyors of outrage, we’re addicted to it. But why? Why are we so quick to show outrage? Why does our collective blood run so hot at the deaths of animals, or the latest offense against public sentiment, yet so lukewarm or cold at the deaths of our fellow human beings, whether it be people dead from war, famine, gun violence, or other forms of murder? Some have tried to answer the question, arguing that we react so strongly to the deaths of animals because we anthropomorphize them, and we get caught up in the mob mentality. Meanwhile, we have been conditioned to accept human suffering, and are perhaps only jogged from our stupor by events of outstanding horror and brutality, such as the mass shootings in Orlando.
A prosecutor, Laura Coates, reflected on the fact that people often show more emotion when responding to the suffering or death of animals than of human children. People might wince or grimace — or, she writes, “if my delivery was charismatic enough, my audience might even muster a tear.” But for animals?
I could have simply held up a dog biscuit during my opening statement and secured a unanimous verdict within minutes — complete with waterworks. (“When a child’s death draws less outrage than Harambe,” CNN [June 1])
I am saddened by the death of animals, especially rare or endangered ones. I don’t believe that people who consider animal deaths tragedies are wrong, or somehow off the rails. But when our responses turn to the justice of the mob, I do believe they reveal a particular kind of sin, as well as the disordered affections that both give rise to and are fueled by it.
In its form of self-examination before the sacrament of reconciliation, the revised Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book defines the sin of malice:
False accusations, slander, backbiting, or gossip. Arousing, fostering, or organizing hostility toward others. Unnecessary or unhelpful criticism, even when true. Organizing and fostering division and resentment within the parish or other communities rather than honest, patient conversation, Deliberate annoyance of others. Teasing. Any acts of bullying. (pp. 126-27)
An older edition (1967) helpfully included another element: Reading false motives into others’ behavior (p. 117).
Combine these behaviors, and you have a laundry list of some of our most visible cultural afflictions, from the private, to the public, to the political.
Consider the outrage over Harambe and the vitriol and judgment directed at the mother. People all over the country felt qualified to opine on her parenting, although the events of the day do not in and of themselves demonstrate poor or inattentive parenting. That sounds like the “false accusations and slander” of malice.
Consider also the next tier: “Arousing, fostering, or organizing hostility toward others.” People have sent threats to this mother, they have told her they wished her son had died rather than Harambe, or that she or her son had been shot instead; some of these comments have tripped over into racism.
This cycle isn’t an isolated event but accords with a well-honed habit. Outrage masked as righteous indignation turns out to be a counterfeit. Tearing others down builds us up. These displays of malice toward one another function also as a means of deflection, ways of distracting us not only from our own sin and frailty, our own culpability, but from our deeper existential angst and fear of powerlessness and death.
Keyboards are indeed the new pitchforks, our words the new tar and feathers.
Our culture is overly interested in how others parent, mostly because we’re interested in being critical of others rather than ourselves. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any disciple of our Lord, who advised us to remove the log from our own eye.
Parents are facing a kind of whiplash. On the one hand, they are criticized for not being attentive and, on the other, for being overly involved “helicopter parents.” Good parents worry that Child Protective Services will be called on them because of overly officious or nosey strangers. There are stories of parents dealing with confrontations with law enforcement or Child Protective Services for parenting in a manner consistent with their own childhood. Whether you’re talking about the variety of responses to “free range parenting,” communities up in arms over tree houses, or visits from social services because of cell-phone videos, there’s plenty to produce anxiety out there. Add the death of Harambe and the subsequent witch hunt to the list.
This is not to deny that there are tragic cases in which CPS should have been involved but did not respond and tragedy ensued. The reality is that both extremes — normal parents hounded by a faceless and uncaring bureaucracy at the behest of hapless do-gooders, or bad parents ignored until tragedy strikes — represent a small minority of families. And yet they loom large in our consciousness.
The factor is fear: Parents are fearful because they (we) are fed a constant diet of extreme examples by our media, so that statistically rare events seem normal. On top of that, our society is filled people dining on the same dog’s dinner of 24-hour news: all too willing to make assumptions, cast aspersions, and generally make a nuisance of themselves, when they aren’t raising a mob, doxxing someone, calling in a SWAT team to teach a lesson, or just, you know, making jerks of themselves on social media.
We talk about helicopter parents, but society has become filled with helicopter observers willing to presume that they have information and understanding, that tragedy would be averted if they were in control. That’s a mythical world, filled with hubris.
Our society can’t have it both ways: we can’t raise independent adults and hold our kids’ hands all the time, even in danger. Life is dangerous. Rather, society must grow up and decide what it really wants the future to look like; these online tantrums — and that’s what they are — don’t bode well for the present or the future. They not only serve up crushing amounts of shame and judgment in 15-minute helpings, but distract us from doing things that might actually be beneficial.
I think this is why Scott Bader-Saye, in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos, 2007), opens with a reflection on “fearful parenting.”
“[I]n the absence of agreement about ‘good parenting,’ we increasingly find solace in ‘safe parenting,’” which is in turn driven by unrealistic fears and anxieties, where “Ordinary living becomes fraught with reminders of extraordinary dangers.”
In the midst of all these parenting fears, the marketplace steps forward ready to offer solutions — for a price. Child safety has become a lucrative industry in part because legitimate fears are artificially heightened and manipulated. When “good parenting” is replaced by “safe parenting,” child rearing is easily captured by consumption — we may not be able to buy goodness, but we can buy safety. And if a given product claims to make your child safer, how do you refrain from buying it without seeming to say, “I’m not interested in my child’s safety.” Yet where does it end? Being locked in a padded room is very safe, but it’s hardly a life.
As I said, the worst thing about acting out of fear and anxiety is that we pass it on on, not least to our children.
We begin thinking primarily about what we want to prevent and avoid rather than what we want to encourage and develop. We direct our energy toward a minimalist credo: “allow no harm.” But it is not enough to keep our children safe. Their physical safety is a backdrop against which we as parents need to help them discover the joy of living, the thrill of new experiences, a robust engagement with the world around them, a dynamic relationship with the God who made them. All of this can easily be squelched when we parent out of fear. Parents need to create space for our children to explore and even take risks in the process of growing, learning, and developing.
In order for parents to make that space, society must make space for parents to parent. That means accepting that sometimes tragedy just is, and there isn’t anyone to blame. And a little more understanding and charity to replace the judgment wouldn’t be so bad either.
For Christians this is imperative, because we want to support one another in being good parents, but also because, more broadly speaking, we are commanded not to live in fear. I haven’t counted myself, but I’ve heard that the most oft-repeated divine commandment is some version of “fear not.” We’re called to live and to act out of the supreme confidence (and humility!) of our union with God in Christ. Nothing can separate us, nothing can defeat us — not even death itself.
Not even a mob with keyboards and cell phones.
Fr. Jody Howard is rector of St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church in Hendersonville. His other posts are here.
The featured image is Blomaert’s “Cain slaying Abel” from Phillip Medhurt’s Picture Torah. It is in the public domain.