On the 28th of May 2016, a visitor to the Cincinnati Zoo uploaded to YouTube a video of a four year old boy trapped in the enclosure of one silverback gorilla named Harambe. By the 31st, the video had amassed over 12.6 million views and 41,000 comments, spawned a 338,000-signature petition, and made the front page of Reddit’s news section – not to mention primetime coverage on just about every mainstream media outlet from local cable news to Al Jazeera. Comment sections were full of angry people blaming the child’s parents – saying they were the ones who should have been punished, not the innocent gorilla. With so much coverage in so little time concerning a logical choice between the life of a human child and the life of a gorilla, is it any wonder the Harambe meme became so virulent? Among a generation brought up on “ebaumsworld” and “funnyjunk”, the absurdity of the highly inflammatory reaction to Harambe’s demise, combined with the genuine tragedy of a dead endangered animal gave the story the makings of a perfect meme. The propensity of our generation for armchair “slacktivism”, in turn, lent itself to tongue-in-cheek wailing and mourning over a creature almost all of us weren’t even aware existed – until he didn’t.
All summer long, the Harambe meme grew in breadth and variety. Facebook and Tumblr feeds were full of images showing Harambe alongside the likes of Alan Rickman, Prince, David Bowie, and others who died in 2016. Twitter and Vine popularized the phrase “dicks out for Harambe”, which itself quickly became an independent appendage of the main Harambe meme. Song lyrics changed from “in the back seat of your rover” to “like that kid in your enclosure”, a member of Blink-182 even chimed in on Twitter with a modified version of a line from “What’s my Age Again?”, and Hip-hop artist Young Thug included a track titled “Harambe” on his most recent album. And, yes, alongside these innocuous variations, some content creators put out iterations of the meme that were racist. Images appeared drawing comparisons between U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and the gorilla; a photo of actress Gabourey Sidibe with text superimposed saying “they shot my husband”, floated around on twitter; captions asked what would have happened if Harambe were an albino Silverback instead of the more common black-furred variety. It may come as no surprise to anyone who has perused the comments section of a popular YouTube video: with a meme as ubiquitous as Harambe, the bowels of the internet inevitably spew out racist imagery parallel to conventional reactions. Just as any other form of expression can be used to convey the full spectrum of human sentiment, memes can – and have been – co-opted by certain groups wishing to achieve a particular goal; Harambe, however, is not one of them.
It’s important to stop and acknowledge here that there is a very well documented pattern of using gorillas to deride people of colour. It’s also a fact that this meme contains numerous examples, which could conceivably fall under that category. To say that the popularity of the meme itself is predicated on connotations of racism, however, is to dismiss the nature of Internet humour: the use of levity in dealing with real-life tragedy, and the epidemiology of Internet content. Our feeds are inundated with clips of carnage from the conflict in Syria, live feeds showing unarmed black men gunned down by police officers for no reason; with soundbites of politicians “bragadociously” admitting sexual assault. In the wake of a major tragedy, we change our profile pictures to the flag of the affected nation and share inspiring images of hope and global kinship. The practice of using social media to express solidarity with a particular cause is incredibly common among millennials, so it isn’t a stretch to imagine that same demographic employing a common practice in a tongue-in-cheek manner. In a time when every other news story seems to include a death toll, a joke predicated on the exaggerated mourning of an animal killed in order to save a human life is a natural, ironic response. Sometimes it feels better to laugh than to cry – and humour is as valid and common a response to tragedy as reverence and sombreness.
It’s not that “it’s just a joke!” is an acceptable excuse for racist behaviour – it isn’t. However, there are some on our own university campus who feel the totality of the meme is racist. To those people, it seems, anyone who participates in the spread of the meme is implicit in the perpetuation of anti-black microaggressions and stereotypes. The reality, of course, is that a healthy majority of McGill students are open-minded, worldly thinkers who are just as disgusted with racism in general and anti-black racism in particular as authors of the recent Daily article. To paint the thousands of people attending the Facebook event as racists is to both diminish the truly insidious nature of the racist underbelly of the internet and discount the genuine, active effort by countless of these people to work against racial discrimination in their lives. Such crusades against a meme achieve nothing – except making the crusader look out of touch, and crotchety. Worse even, it could ultimately lead to a pushback against the very causes they champion.
Examples can be found in the illustrious history of our Student Society, but perceived instances of “SJW overreach” are not limited to our campus. UMass Amherst, Claremont McKenna College, and Yale – to name just three – each had their own variation on the classic tale: legitimate concerns over potential discrimination and disrespect to minority groups were overshadowed by overzealous tactics and absurd implications. All of these incidents were shared extensively across social media platforms and widely panned as examples of ideological overextension by campus leftists. The growth of this sentiment of derision and mockery for so-called SJWs is not innocuous – it does genuine harm to the cause of creating a fairer, more equitable society: the genesis of the alt-right is predicated largely upon a pushback against what many see as regressive, not progressive, leftism. It is a revealing and enlightening exercise to look to these cultural images and re-examine our values. Engaging in inflammatory, antagonistic behaviour, however, only serves to undermine the credibility of the philosophy of equity.
Tomorrow at 7:00pm, Lower Field will be awash in the glow of nearly four thousand candles as McGill students stand vigil in memory of a magnificent silverback gorilla. Or, more likely, the six thousand or so interested parties will receive a notification at 6pm reminding them of the event, exhale sharply through their noses in that “I just saw something funny on my phone” kind of way, and then get back to studying for midterms or getting ready to go out. Because despite the musings of an editorial board (without a single Black member), this event is nothing more than the localization of a popular meme in the tradition of absurdist humour in both internet and millennial cultures. Instead of wagging fingers at perceived microaggressions in online imagery, let’s move forward as a University to undertake the work of removing barriers to opportunity in a practical, rational manner. The student body already endured the Obama .gif fiasco of ’14. Few are eager to rehash it.