Gorillas and guerillas
In a previous post, I discussed how the apparent simplicity of a conflict can make the difference in whether it can attract and maintain attention or not – portraying a conflict as ‘chaos’ (instead of actually explaining its complexity) seems to be one sure way of telling people that they don’t need to direct their indignation towards the perpetrators or their sympathies towards the victims. A look at how outside observers see the animal victims of conflict (as opposed to the human victims) also helps us to see how important the ability to sympathize is in getting attention to a conflict.
In 2001 a lion in the Kabul zoo was left blinded and scarred by a hand grenade attack. The attacker’s cousin had been killed by the lion when he ventured into the lion’s den on a dare, and the grenade attack was an act of vengeance. The incident was covered in much of the Western press and sparked sympathy and donations to assist in the treatment for the lion. This was more than could be said for most of the human victims of the much broader conflict in Afghanistan. Conflict in that country up until the NATO attacks following September 11 was very much ‘off the radar’, with heavy fighting between the Taliban and Western-backed warlords routinely ignored by the media and other actors in much of the outside world.
But we can see the animal effect on sympathies perhaps most clearly in the case of the gorillas of the Great Lakes region, in the areas around the borders of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. With their numbers in decline, the continued existence of these mammals is in jeopardy, particularly because of conflict in the Great Lakes region. The extinction of a species of animals is clearly an issue of concern, but if we were to compare attention per capita, it is highly likely that we will find that the gorillas have managed to attract more attention (and almost certainly more sympathy) than the 6 million human victims of the conflict in the region.
Media corporations are quick to report the murder of gorillas (particularly babies) when it happens, and the victims will often be reported by name. But the same media corporations will more likely than not ignore massacres of humans in the DRC, babies or adult. How many of their names will ever be found in a newspaper?
While there has been a number of large-scale civil society campaigns organized in response to the more popular conflict in Darfur, there have very few in response to the much larger conflict in the DRC. But one campaign that was organized in response to this conflict, with some support from a number of Hollywood actors (including Leonardo di Caprio), was a campaign for “gorilla-friendly mobile phones”, referring to phones made without using the coltan mined in the DRC, which fuelled the conflict that threatened the gorillas. Admittedly, one campaign that was focused primarily on Belgium and Europe was a “no blood on my cell phone” campaign that aimed to draw attention to the link between coltan and the human victims of the conflict.
Often the message seems to be something along the lines of: ‘we will not be particularly concerned about the humans killed in Africa (especially while the details are not put in front of us – and we would rather they are not), but we care deeply about the lives of the gorillas, and will stand up to protect them’.
Here are perhaps some of the thoughts that run through people’s minds in the Western world (whether consciously or not), thoughts that make a situation like this possible:
Are part of a ‘chaotic’ conflict (it is messy and there is nothing that can be done)
Are part of a ‘tribal’ conflict (which sounds primitive, violent and nasty: people are killing each other, and therefore they are not innocent)
Are different from me (black and poor)
Are far away from my home (hordes of refugees will not be arriving on my doorstep)
Are messing up the freedom and independence that we gave them
Are blowing all the aid that we, in our benevolence, always give them
On the other hand,
Are intelligent (this is also one factor that seems to give whales so much more sympathy than cows)
Are innocent and are just caught up in the cruel violence of humans
Among the many factors behind the sympathy for gorillas (but not for humans), it is perhaps their perceived innocence that is the most significant. As long as the conflict between the humans is seen being ‘chaotic’ and ‘tribal’, innocent victims are difficult to be identified, and thus sympathy will be difficult to come by. Sympathy is usually generated when victims are able to be seen as belonging to an easily identifiable ‘ethnic’ group, not as individual humans belonging to different ‘sides’.
Perhaps the final irony is that there is a large shadow hanging over the conservation industry that ostensibly works to protect the gorillas. In a toxic mix of politics and profit, there appear to be links between policymakers, media corporations and the for-profit ‘conservation’ industry, in which the parties appear to be taking advantage of sympathy for the gorillas to achieve political goals and make money. Details can be found here.