The Gorilla Story and our Reactionary Culture

In the wake of the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo where a seven-year old silverback gorilla was shot and killed in order to secure the safety of a four-year old child who fell into the exhibit we have seen some shameful reactions.

The Washington Post published an article chronicling some online responses toward the parents of the child that fell into the gorilla exhibit. Quoting part below:

People wasted little time responding to the [mother’s] Facebook post with hateful comments, forcing her to eventually remove it altogether, People magazine reported. They then found the Facebook page for a preschool where a woman by the same name works, records show. They blasted that next, according to news reports, forcing the school to delete its page, too.

Other women who share her name on social media received threatening messages intended for her, attacks that called her “scum,” “a really bad mother” and a “f‑‑‑ing killer.”

“that animal is more important than your s‑‑‑ kid,” one man messaged.

Another woman wrote: “u should’ve been shot.”

At times, the barrage of insults were racially charged, reported the Cincinnati Enquirer.

By Monday, the threats grew so intense that Cincinnati police felt compelled to act [to protect the family].

The purpose of this post is not to discuss if the zoo made the right call (I believe they did) or debate whether the violent demise of a beautiful creature is really that unfortunate (it is). Rather, the reason for this post is to draw attention to how irrational, unhinged, and disoriented many people in our culture have become as is perpetually on display via social media.

It seems whenever a “controversial” issue is in the news, posts, tweets, and comments flood the Internet with intense ad hominem attacks in all directions. The majority of online discourse we are exposed to on a daily basis (including, perhaps especially, minors) is empty of decorum, civility, thought, or true concern; vulgarity, malice, and thoughtlessness are instead commonplace.

Reading this article called to mind a quote from the late Thomas Merton. In his epic chronicling his conversion to the Catholic Church, The Seven Storey Mountain, he writes passionately on popular culture in modern society and how it affects the soul. Although the book was published in the 1940’s, the following words might be even more true today:

We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible…

-The Seven Storey Mountain, pg. 148

Viewing the prevailing culture through the paradigm this quote offers, I think we can better understand the chaos we always see unraveling on social media. We see shameless and thoughtless reactionaryism everywhere now. I’d argue it’s both true and obvious that many people are kept at constant tension with the people around them, in full submission to mighty and disordered passions burning within. This problem is exacerbated by immoderate consumption of what popular culture has to offer. Sure, everyone battles disordered passions, but there exists an important difference between the practicing Catholic and hedonist. The difference is that the Christian is aware of the problem and tries to act out of virtue rather than vice.

Of course, the Adversary loves it when people foster chaos, hate, and division among each other. After all, “diabolical” comes from the Greek “Diabolos”, based on the root meaning of “to divide” or “division”.

Thinking of a way to end this, Saint Francis of Assisi comes to mind. His oft-recited prayer seems well suited for the ruthless reactionaryism our culture seems to be prone to:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying
that we are born to eternal life.

Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us.

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