Culture At Large

When genocide takes a back seat to a giraffe

Stephen Woodworth

Earlier this year the Copenhagen Zoo made headlines around the world when workers killed and dismembered a giraffe named Marius in front of a crowd of onlookers, including schoolchildren. (The meat was then fed to the zoo’s lions.) Although officials defended their decision by explaining that Marius’ genes didn't add to the diversity of the zoo population, global outrage ensued.

For many reasons, Marius’ story should rightly generate discourse about the proper treatment of animals. The taking of life always demands reverence. And yet, this is also why Marius’ death is a peculiar point of moral conflict.

In a recent Freakonomics podcast, hosts Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner considered why certain tragedies draw international attention, while others are largely ignored. Specifically, they questioned why so many people had expressed great concern over the death of Marius the giraffe yet remained largely silent about something like genocide in Syria, which was occurring at the same time. Levitt and Dubner also discussed “blood avocados,” the notion that the purchase of avocados in America very likely supports criminal extortion in Mexico. Once again they asked, Where is the moral outrage? Why giraffes and not avocados?

Such quick fixes help us forget the real source of the problem: the brokenness inside ourselves.

My own hypothesis is that in a globalized world, we have access today to an ever-increasing wealth of information. Because of this, news that in previous decades may have never reached our eyes and ears now travels to our phones in real time. Overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of injustice and suffering around us, we begin to feel paralyzed, powerless and unable to bring about significant change. And yet, we cannot shake our desire to do something. So we turn to other issues that are often simpler and less morally complicated. We might buy fair-trade coffee or organic meat. We become vegans or locavores. We recycle, change our light bulbs or try to save the life of one giraffe by signing a petition. We do this not because these issues are more important than the myriad of injustices elsewhere, but because they are manageable. “I cannot stop the war in Syria today,” some may argue, “but I can do my best to save one giraffe.”

I also believe we prioritize “easy” in order to stem the gnawing feeling in our soul that the world is desperately broken and in need of redemption. Such quick fixes help us forget the real source of the problem: the brokenness inside ourselves. Human slavery highlights my own tendency to objectify and commodify people. War brings to the surface my own anger and ability to murder another in my heart. Genocide underlines my own ethnocentricity. Hatred of any kind forces me to look deeply and honestly at my daily failure to love God, and my neighbor as myself. And so, very often, we look away from these issues and set our gaze instead on stories that do not, and cannot, touch us so deeply. Stories that will help us forget for a moment that the real problem with the world today, as G.K. Chesterton once suggested, is me.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, World, Justice