Sunday, June 03, 2018
Primates and the Spectre of Human Racism
Diane Fossey. Jane Goodall. Birute Galdikas. These are the three famous women dubbed the Trimates who have done courageous and ground-breaking research with chimpanzees and gorillas and orangutans through the decades. They've told the stories of these primates well and invited us to love and respect them. We now know that we share most of our DNA with apes. And hey, now that Ellen Degeneris has a Gorilla Fund we'll love 'em even more.
There is a sinister side to the use of the term ape as well. It is from the realm of racism and white supremacy. When Michelle Obama was the First Lady a West Virginia county employee described her as "an ape in heels." She lost her job for that, but got it back.
This past week TV celebrity Roseanne Barr had her series cancelled summarily after she described a woman of colour as an ape in a tweet, along with other vile comments. This isn't a first for Barr who called Valerie Jarrett, an advisor to President Obama, an ape as well. During a televised MSNBC town hall on Tuesday, Jarrett graciously dismissed the impact Barr’s tweet had on her. She turned the focus on the casual racism that people of color experience daily: "I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers who come right to their defense — the person who’s walking down the street minding their own business and they see somebody cling to their purse or run across the street.”
Needless to say, these are intended as demeaning and dehumanizing insults, as are President Trump's descriptions of undocumented immigrants as animals. The history of totalitarian regimes, including those of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler are rife with descriptions of those who are scapegoated as animals. The irony is that humans are animals as well, supposedly with special capacity for compassion and reason.
Do you recall the original Planet of the Apes film from 1968? In one scene the scientist chimpanzee Cornelius reads from the sacred scrolls of his species:
Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.
We can hope that this is not true, and that humans have a higher calling. When we choose Jesus, or Jesus chooses us, we enter into a way of being in this world where denigrating and "othering" those around us is unacceptable. We repent of this sin and we are transformed by love.