Dissecting the Concept of Empathy: On Harambe and Beyond

Male Silverback Gorilla
Male Silverback Gorilla

Consisting of one hundred million minuscule, yet highly adapted and specialized neuronal cells, the human brain is perhaps one of the most captivating and mystical systems of the biological world. What can hardly be considered an isolated organ, the brain has been scrutinized for centuries by scientists all across the world in an effort to explain not only every other organ system, but also to understand the complex mechanisms through which humans can process emotions, engage in social interactions and ultimately, feel.

Indeed, the science of empathy--the ability to share the emotions of others and engage with experiences that are not immediately tangible to us--is as fascinating as it is still murky, simply because it concerns a state of being that humans are particularly adept at selectively expressing. In some situations or environments, we, as individuals and as a society, are quick to express concern and validate one another. In other scenarios, we present a facade of apathy that creates a rift between our hearts and those who need it the most.

Earlier this week, the internet shook at the death of Harambe, a male seventeen year old Western lowland silverback gorilla who was shot by staff members at the Cincinnati Zoo after a young child fell into the mammal's enclosure. In a span of a few short days, the Cincinnati Zoo has set the stage stage for a greater conversation about our country's treatment of animals and the measures animal care personnel should take when humans cross physical boundaries into exhibits. Some argue that Harambe displayed no intentions of harming the child, citing video footage of the incident and past incidents in which individuals have entered gorilla exhibits and emerged unharmed. Others contest that the sheer force wielded by an animal of Harambe's size warranted an immediate intervention.

But regardless of where one stands on the issue--unsurprisingly, it seems that everybody has an opinion--there is no denying that this tragedy is characterized by an outpouring of human emotion and compassion. There is empathy for Harambe, a member of an endangered species, for the child who fell into the exhibit and sustained several injuries, and for the zoo's staff members, who mourn the loss of a beautiful and highly intelligent animal. This empathy is more than just show; rather, it serves a fuel through which dynamic discussions about animal conservation have been able to take place. One cannot deny that the emotionally charged nature of this incident has been crucial in allowing it to gain its momentum.

But one question I cannot help myself from asking is: why have we waited for the death of a single animal to occur before displaying an emotional investment in the greater issue of endangered animal welfare? For decades, gorilla colonies across the world have been displaced from their habitats through large-scale huntings and deforestation projects. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that there remain less than one hundred thousand Western lowland gorillas--the most widespread species of gorilla--left in the wild.

Yet I struggle to recall the last time we as a society have been as moved by these conservation reports as we are to the death of Harambe.

One might argue that gap--a fissure of compassion that defines how we react and respond to a wide variety of social issues-- can be attributed to sheer numbers. Indeed, many research studies have indicated that humans empathize more with individuals than with groups, which makes sense because we are wired to selectively engage with issues that we feel we have control over. The individual suffering of Harambe at a United States zoo is, in the eyes of many, a tragedy that could have been prevented, whereas the general decline of our planet's gorilla population surpasses our individual efficacies. Incidents that we can visualize as being isolated, ones that do not rely on statistics to be tangible, it seems, garner significantly more emotional traction.

But when we start to view the death of Harambe in a different light--as a powerful portrayal of how we fail to empathize in some contexts and over empathize in others--we can see that this week's incident is anything but isolated. As another example, recall the death of Cecil, a male Southwest African Lion who in 2015, was slaughtered by an American dentist at the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe. The killing of the protected lion, as you may remember, was documented by media organizations all over the world. Citizens all across the world expressed outrage over the poaching and demanded reparations be made for the hunter.

But the truth of the matter is that poaching is an ongoing crime; for decades, illegal hunting has threatened the lion population as a whole, single handedly reducing the population to an all time low. Cecil is not the first lion to die as a result of human malignancy. Why did it take the death of one lion for us to start talking?

Unsurprisingly, conservation reports are hardly the only issues that fall on the short end of the empathy stick. Consider that this week alone, when an estimated seven hundred refugees died while crossing the Mediterranean earlier this week, there was little discussion, media coverage or public outrage. We were all too busy arguing with one another about how to correctly run a zoo.

Consider that while incidences of domestic violence remain overwhelmingly prevalent both in the United States and across the world, we have a tendency to only highlight its potency when it affects a celebrity. And even when we do, it is not uncommon for us to shame the survivor and outwardly reject the trauma they have faced. In this area, the well of empathy runs far too dry.

Consider that each and every year, hundreds of thousands of cattle, pigs and chickens are slaughtered in factories across the country to provide our supermarkets with a sustainable source of meat. They are killed not with remorse, but in an emotional vacuum, in a space where their lives simply matter less to us than those of a gorilla or lion or tiger. I cannot help but question this dichotomy.

These issues are by no means all inclusive, and this article is by no means an attempt to unpack the complexities that govern them. Rather, it is to provide examples of social topics that are often cast into the shadows, covered with a blanket of apathy and put to rest upon a bed of doubt.

Some will be keen to argue that these observations lack dimension, or that they are offensive, belittling and at the very least, unfair to the human psyche. But the goal of presenting these ideas is neither to offend nor to suggest that we do not have the right to be critical about the deaths of Harambe and Cecil. There is no denying that the death of any individual--human or nonhuman-- is an appropriate cause for remorse, reflection and compassion. But along the same vein, it is interesting to note that we as a society are not always proactive about other issues as they apply to larger populations or groups. This "pickiness" is a virus through which the disease of erasure can propagate.

It is natural to feel helpless and upset when we turn to the news for information. We live in a world where tragedy is frequent and suffering is far from nonexistent. Reading stories about the refugee crisis, domestic violence, environmental disasters, decimating animal populations and gun violence in our own country is emotionally taxing. Coverage about these issues is particularly good at making us feel like we cannot do anything.

But it is when we decide that we no longer have a stake in these issues, when we resign ourselves to being passive bystanders of a chaotic battlefield, that our sense of curiosity is lost. Because visibility of social issues is directly influenced by our determination to engage with these issues. This engagement does not have to be grandiose or financially draining; it can be through discussions with one another, developing individual passions ourselves and simply by opening our minds. In order to move the world forward, we must accept that the solution to solving the problems is not necessarily caring more, but rather to be honest with ourselves in assessing our personal biases. We must be more critical not only of the xenophobia around us and the people it targets, but also of the lack of empathy that promotes it.

We must allow ourselves to truly feel, not just for Harambe, but for the other victims and survivors, for those whose voices exist outside a zoo but are just as trapped.