Last week, when zoo officials in Japan named a baby monkey Charlotte in honor of the newborn British princess, they set off a storm of protest. Naming a monkey after a princess? How disrespectful can you get?
The Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden had invited people to send in their favorite name, and Charlotte was the winner, with 59 votes out of 853. (Runners-up were a tennis player and a Disney character.) Anxious not to cause any offence, the zoo sought advice from the British Embassy in Tokyo. The British Embassy, equally anxious not to offend the people of Japan, especially since the British royals are very popular there, said that no offence had been caused.
So the monkey and the princess will share their name after all. (And, as in all proper princess-and-monkey stories, both will hopefully live happily ever after.)
We humans prefer not to think of ourselves as animals at all.We humans can be quite touchy about reminders that, as great apes, we’re closely related to other members of the primate family – in this case monkeys. We prefer not to think of ourselves as animals at all, but rather as beings who are different, higher and exceptional.
And if we do seem to share rather obvious characteristics with other animals, then we find ways to distinguish ourselves regardless. One way of doing this is to label people we disapprove of as being animals, as in “They’re behaving like animals,” which separates us from those animal-like humans.
Take the case of remarks by Israel’s new Deputy Minister of Defense, Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan, who is well-known for insulting the Palestinian people. Ben-Dahan is quoted as calling them “human animals” and “subhumans”.
It’s not uncommon, just generally, for Jews in Israel to speak of the Palestinians as “animals”. In a TV debate in 2010, Naftali Bennett, hardline Minister of Education and the son of American immigrants, told Arab-Israeli Knesset member Ahmad Tibi: “When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here.”
Check out, too, a shocking video of young Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint making jokes about the Palestinian city of Ramallah being a zoo. One of them tells the video camera:
“Animals. Animals. Like the Discovery Channel. All of Ramallah is a jungle. There are monkeys, dogs, gorillas. [laughter] The problem is that the animals are locked in, they can’t come out.
“We’re humans; they’re animals. They aren’t human; we are. That’s the difference.”
An obvious irony in this is that it’s exactly how the Jews themselves were described by the Nazis.
The remarks of the soldiers and, now, of Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense are classic examples of how we humans try to externalize our own animal nature onto other, supposedly inferior, people. If we can see them as animals, this can bolster our construct of ourselves as superior, exceptional, and, most important, not animals. This need to externalize our animal nature onto other people is arguably at the heart of our wars and strife with each other.
This need to externalize our animal nature – whether onto another individual, another country, another race, another class, etc. – is arguably at the heart of our wars and strife with each other. Whether they’re the Irish, the Jews, the Arabs, the Chinese, the gays, the poor, or the people next door, “they” are always the inferior ones – the “animals”. And “we” are always the humans.
By oppressing, demeaning, enslaving and even killing them, we see ourselves, if only briefly, as triumphing over the part of ourselves that we’ve externalized onto them.
The trouble, of course, is not that those other people are not animals. It’s that we’re all animals. But this is entirely unacceptable, so there always has to be another enemy, a new war, a new “other” whom we can kill or oppress in hopes of proving our superiority.
But the enemy is never out there; the enemy that we fear is our own mortal, animal nature.
Whether you’re a Palestinian, a Jew, a Nazi, a princess, or anyone else, you’re a great ape, just like the rest of us. And the world would be a much happier place if we could all accept it.