Hitler and the Gorilla

Like.  Dislike. Comment.  Post.  Since the advent of Facebook, I’ve been quietly observing a disturbing phenomenon that I believe has been aggravated by the age of social media.  While social media has given birth to many wonderful opportunities and conveniences, it has also given rise to what I see as the social dehumanization of others.  It has given us all the opportunity to stand (or sit) at a distance and judge someone else, with very limited information and even less consequences.  It has made us feel empowered and entitled to have an opinion about aspects of other people’s lives on which we have no right to hold an opinion.

At first, these opportunities to loudly voice our agreements or criticisms were limited only to what one of our “friends” chose to post, and so it seemed our right to give feedback, since they had chosen what to offer to us.  However, we are now entering the territory of cellphone videos and photos taken in a moment, in any situation and without the subject’s knowledge or consent, for the purpose of criticism.  Sometimes they’re humorous, like when the unknowing subject has an exposed plumber’s crack or is dressed in full Klingon garb.  But now we are embarking on the very dangerous ground of offering up human sacrifices to appease angry mobs.  I know we all thought we left this behind in our dirty, ignorant history, with the Romans, perhaps, but it’s rearing its ugly head again.  How does the phrase go?  We must learn from history, lest we repeat it?  I believe this is one of those moments where we could reopen the chapters of history that none of us wants to repeat.

I’ve watched it play out in countless news stories of late.  There was the family whose two-year-old wandered away from home.  He was ultimately found to have tragically drowned in a creek, but within hours of his disappearance, before his body was discovered, while the family was desperately searching for him, there was an outcry on social media for the parents’ heads, insisting that they must have been behind his disappearance.  How ugly and hateful do you have to be to throw that at a terrified family in the worst moment of their lives?

And, then again, this weekend, we all witnessed the horrifying situation at the Ohio zoo, where a four-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure and ultimately, the zoo had to make the hard decision to kill the gorilla in order to protect the boy.  When, as a country, we should have been rallying around this mom who faced every mother’s worst fear and the zoo officials who had to make an unimaginable choice, the social media backlash was at its worst, with enraged parties even creating and signing a petition to have this boy taken away from his mother.  The worst of humanity rose up in anger, even suggesting that the zoo should have let the boy be killed, because it would serve his mother right for not keeping a close enough eye on him.  Disgusting.  Despicable. Inexcusable.

I despair of a world that would consider it justice to let a mother watch her son be killed simply because she did what every mother has done, and lost sight of her child for a moment.  Is it tragic that a gorilla had to die in this scenario?  Absolutely.  Did the zoo make the right choice of a child’s life over an animal’s?  Absolutely.

Where is the mercy?  Where is the community rallying around these people, offering support rather than criticism, empathy rather than judgment?

The question is often asked today, how could Hitler have risen to power?  How could people have stood back and let him slaughter millions of Jews and other people deemed undesirable?  The same way that hundreds of people could stand in such harsh judgment of a mom who lost sight of her son for a moment that they would call for CPS to remove her son from her custody, or even suggest the zoo should have let her son be killed by the gorilla.  When a person’s whole worth as a mom (or any other role in life) could be summed up by her worst mistake, with no chance for mercy and the court of public opinion crying out for her blood, we as humanity are dangling dangerously close to the precipice of public executions and concentration camps.  I know we all think we never could, never would allow someone like Hitler to come to power again and commit atrocities like he committed, but all it took was a court of public opinion that dehumanized a group of people to the point that the majority was willing to turn a blind eye to the annihilation of their fellow human beings.

If, as a society, we allow ourselves to replace empathy with judgment, we ought not be surprised to see another marginalized group of human beings put in concentration camps and tortured.  It all begins with the societally condoned dehumanization of the “other.”  And as long as I have breath in my lungs, I will shout as loudly as I can to prevent that from happening.  And you should, too.