Two months ago Harambe the gorilla was shot by zookeepers to protect a child who had fallen into his enclosure. The reactionary narratives played out predictably. Animal rights activists condemned the Cincinatti Zoo’s actions as murder while others praised the staff’s quick and logical thinking. Sympathetic parents defended the mother’s actions; others called for her to be prosecuted. Once the moral debates subsided, the death of this western low land gorilla was quickly forgotten as another run-of-the-mill tragedy.
Since then Harambe has re-emerged as a particularly ubiquitous meme. He has featured along side Muhammad Ali and Donald Trump, been co-opted by internet slogans such as “dicks out for Harambe”, been used to express solidarity with gorilla deaths and, particularly disconcertingly, for racist Adam Goodes memes. Harambe, it seems, is unbound by the contexts to which other memes might be confined. Harambe has become more famous in death than he ever was in life – as the memers say, “Harambe died for our sins.”
Somewhere in this whirlpool of mixed intentions and deep rooted ironies, the fact that gorilla numbers are dwindling and that their habitats are being destroyed seems to have gotten lost or at least, deemed irrelevant. That zoos are literally prisons for animals, which, in some parts of the world, actively partake in animal cruelty has gone unspoken. That we might be one of the last generations to share the world with gorillas has been forgotten. The irony surrounding Harambe the meme has made it increasingly difficult for people to engage authentically with the issues that made him noteworthy in the first place.
What’s happened to Harambe is hardly novel. It is all too common for serious issues to be hijacked by meme culture, losing their gravitas entirely. Any mention of 9/11 is sure to be accompanied by satirical reference to the “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” meme. Autism-related memes are prominent and the disorder is increasingly used as an adjective for social awkwardness. “Crazy feminist” memes populate the timelines of many a friend who is intolerant to gender equality, and racist memes continue to normalise problematic stereotypes. The problems facing one of our closest relatives has exemplified this fate: issues that are serious become hard to take seriously.
The prevailing attitude is that the irony, sarcasm and randomness of meme culture makes it exempt from most moral standards. As is becoming increasingly apparent, however, the trivialisation of important issues via memes can have dire consequences. The more memes penetrate pop-culture, the more they start to influence people’s worldview. There’s nothing that differentiates memes from jokes generally, yet for some reason they are not held to the same standard. What’s worse is that memes legitimise problematic ideas from a grassroots level. Harambe memes give rise to Harambe joke thinkpieces, Harambe references by comedians, and a general culture that disregards the animal rights issues that underpinned this whole saga in the first place.
Perhaps the moral battle against memes is pointless to wage in the abstract. When memes problematically manifest questionable attitudes, however, the discussion becomes imperative.
You were shot after a life imprisoned. “Rest In Peace Harambe.”