By Archit Jain
2016 was the year of major socio-cultural developments that captured the public gaze. Among those, it is hard to miss what has arguably been the most grieved death of an animal in history.
Harambe, the gorilla?
On an afternoon in May, the Cincinnati Zoo shot dead one of its 17-year old gorillas, Harambe, after he began dragging and manhandling a young boy who had inadvertently fallen into his enclosure. The zoo officials got some support for their quick thinking in face of an unfortunate incident. But, very soon, animal-rights activists inundated them with hate mail. The argument was that they should have used a tranquilizer dart instead of outrightly killing the endangered species. There were allegations of negligence on part of the boy’s mother, including an online petition signed by 180,000 people calling for her to be investigated by law enforcement and child protective services agencies.
Or, Harambe, the meme-god?
Even as the clamour around the real controversy subsided, the internet was flush with memes ‘lamenting’ Harambe’s death. Some featured Harambe in a version of the trolley problem, others showed him knocked-out by the late boxer Muhammad Ali.
There was nomination of Harambe as President in the elections later last year. Also, he has become the protagonist of several songs that play with the lyrics of popular music.
In due time, two divergent narratives emerged of: Harambe, the gorilla and Harambe, the meme-god. It is a funny dichotomy that revealed the cleavage between the public imagination of the killing and the actual killing itself.
Why did Harambe spread as an icon, though?
Harambe is the perfect embodiment of the post-normality that captures the zeitgeist of our increasingly weird world. The episode brought up some pressing questions, like the racist tropes employed to compare Harambe’s features to black actress Leslie Jones’ or the hypocrisy inherent in eating a chicken, but yelling for the rights of a gorilla.
However, for the most part, it was just plain stupid. Harambe could mean anything that people wanted it to, without signifying anything at all. For example, it was very often used in juxtaposition with other seemingly anomalous events of the year, including Donald Trump’s ascendancy. Harambe became a meme in the very original sense of the word, as intended by Richard Dawkins. It was a cultural icon that spread merely because it was good at spreading.
It is because of this precise reason that it is so difficult to create a narrative around what the Harambe controversy ‘means’. Being outraged by his death is tantamount to confusing his meme with Harambe the gorilla.
If there is anything that the incident reflects, it is the fickle and transient nature of our collective online psyche. If nothing, 2016 displayed how it worked in more and more haphazard ways.
Harambe’s death was unfortunate but inevitable; contrary to the several petitions that circulated. As facts would have it, no one is to blame for it. Except perhaps the social media, for reading a little too much into it.