The director of an organization that serves the town of Clay, WV, calls Michelle Obama an “ape in heels.”
About Melania Trump, she says: “It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House.”
The mayor responds: “Just made my day, Pam.”
Just the latest in a stream of racist slurs bubbling up in the ascent of Donald Trump to the Presidency.
We’ve had the mayor of West York, PA, joking about lynching President Obama and comparing him and his family to monkeys.
And the chairwoman of a Colorado county Republican Party in Colorado posting a picture of Ronald Reagan bottle-feeding a chimpanzee in the 1951 movie Bedtime for Bonzo, and writing: “I’ll be dammed … Reagan used to babysit Obama!”
Yes, it’s offensive and hateful. But there’s more going on here, and it relates directly to our upcoming symposium on the topic “I Am NOT an Animal!”
Think about it for a moment. Biologically, the First Lady – like every human being – is indeed an ape. That’s what we are. We’re a branch of the primate family that includes chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and humans. All great apes. And we should be proud of our heritage. As primatologist Frans de Waal has written:
There is nothing wrong with the recognition that we are apes — smart ones perhaps, but apes nonetheless. As an ape lover, I can’t see this comparison as insulting.
Except that it does bother us. It’s designed to be demeaning and insulting. And the reason is that our great ape cousins remind us that we are animals – large-brained animals, for sure, but mortal flesh and blood nonetheless. We don’t like to be reminded of that.
We also don’t like to be reminded of the fact that we behave remarkably like our cousins. As Jane Goodall explained during the election campaign:
“In many ways, the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals. In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”
When you have low self-esteem, one solution is to characterize other people as the “animals” and oneself as the superior non-animal.That’s not the way we like to think of ourselves. To be thought of as an ape is a blow to our self-esteem. We prefer to think of ourselves as special creations who are of some higher order.
So, when you have low self-esteem, one solution is to characterize other people as the “animals” and oneself as the superior non-animal. Nazi leaders are well-known for having called Jews apes and rats. (Ironically, Israeli leaders say similar things about Palestinians. Similarly, white people get labeled pigs. No one has a monopoly on this kind of behavior.)
In this mindset, calling someone an “animal” is seen as worse than calling them a liar, a cheat, a crook, even a monster. To be called an “animal” is the worst kind of insult.
So, looking at all this at a deeper level, what does it tell us about the way we view our fellow animals?
Yes, it’s off-the-charts insulting to call the First Lady an “ape in heels.” And even though this kind of cheap slur isn’t going to bother a person of her caliber, it does real damage to the animals themselves. After all, when our whole society has agreed that the worst thing you can be is an ape, this is inevitably going to affect the way we treat our great ape cousins.
And the effect is indeed catastrophic. It’s brought them to the edge of extinction. Within 50 years, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans will all be gone from their natural habitats. Just one species of great ape will be left: the one that’s now exterminating them.
Perhaps, at this late stage, it would help if we could stop denying that we, like them, are apes. Perhaps we could even begin to take some pride in who we are and where we belong in the great family of life on this planet.
Imagine a world in which calling someone an ape in heels is a great compliment.