Harambe and the Human/Animal Binary

“Human lives are more important than animal lives.”  This is the claim often offered as justification for the recent death (murder?) of Harambe the gorilla.  As with all supposed truisms, there’s a lot of unexamined assumptions at play.  Let’s take a look.

First, what we must avoid, if we want to think critically about this or any subject, is a simple reversal of the proposition to be examined.  To claim something like “nature is more important than the will of humans” in response to the above claim is banal, I’d argue, because it does nothing to escape the logic of the original claim.  It still posits: 1) “nature” and “humans” as concrete, divisible entities; and 2) the feasibility of somehow weighing one against the other. So, a “pro-nature” statement, while bold, isn’t particularly clever.

A more sophisticated analysis begins by breaking down what “human lives are more important than animal lives” really purports to mean.  First, as indicated, it suggests that human lives and animal lives exist in separate spheres, and that the good of the one must be weighed against the good of the other.  Second, it suggests that agreed-upon criteria exist for this measurement.  It is the application of these (invisible) criteria that make the statement “true” in some universal sense.

Once deemed true, the maxim is then brought to bear on particular cases.  What we must remember though is that maxims like this aren’t solely means of post-hoc justification.  Instead, they work to shape our understanding of events as they happen.

We can imagine the above statement as a kind of lens through which we view the encounter between Harambe and the young boy.  Belief in the validity of this statement, and the underlying logic, lead us to see the encounter between boy and gorilla in a certain way—as a zero-sum game, perhaps, as an interaction of opposed entities between which an accounting can and must be made.  This in turn influences our actions.  And the actions of the zookeepers who decided that Harambe needed to die.

Now, the above is not to argue that the keepers made the wrong decision.  (In fact, in situations such as this I’m inclined to respect the judgment of those closest to the action.)  It is to say though that we need to be aware of the ways in which language structures our world.  What happened to Harambe is a terrible tragedy.  My claim is that in this particular case, the logic of our beliefs, by drawing distinctions between certain elements of experience, may make such tragedies more likely to occur.

On the Symbolic Power of “Nigga”

Chester Hanks (aka “Chet Haze”), son of Tom and semi-pro rapper, made news recently with a strident defense of his right, as a white hip-hop fan, to say the word “nigga.” His argument is basically that this word is a integral part of hip-hop culture, often signifying “camaraderie and love.”  Whether you agree or not, it’s clear that Haze has a deep emotional connection to this term. As someone who studies language for a living, I’m well aware of the problems associated with (mis)appropriation and license. Still, I think it’s useful to take a closer look at what feeds this connection.

Though its origin is almost certainly apocryphal, there’s a distinction floating around online, supposed made by Tupac, between the meaning of the words “nigger” and “nigga.” The former, Tupac says, is a black man with “a slavery chain” around his neck. The latter is a black man with a gold chain around his neck. This distinction, I think, neatly encapsulates the affective power inherent in the word “nigga.” This word implies a certain movement—from oppression to self-expression, from poverty to wealth, from weakness to power. It represents the speaker seizing control of the way he or she (but usually he) is defined. In short, there’s symbolic agency inherent in this word. In light of that, we can see why some outside the black community are so eager to appropriate it.

As Haze indicates, there’s also a sense of soldiery—both racial and economic—implied by the term. In saying, “my nigga” or “niggaz like us,” one is basically saying something along the lines of “fellow resistance fighters.” I know of no other English term that has the same semantic resonance.

So could this term become widespread among white language users without losing its power? I don’t know. At the least I suspect its force would be diluted. This is perhaps one reason why many African Americans are so adamantly opposed to what seems like benign white appropriation. Mindful of this, perhaps it’s best that Mr. Haze take Ben Westoff‘s advice and start using “ninja” instead.