Dolphin selfies and performing whales: how our cultural narcissism is killing the planet

| 15th March 2016
Dolphins are the most intelligent non-human animals, so why do we still allow companies like Seaworld violate their rights? Photo: BenSpark via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)
Dolphins are the most intelligent non-human animals, so why do we still allow companies like Seaworld violate their rights? Photo: BenSpark via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)
The craze for selfie photographs has reached an all-time low, after a recent spate of animal deaths have been linked to achieving the perfect picture, writes Laura Bridgeman. But why do people exhibit such a careless attitude to animal welfare when we normally show such apathy? Cultural conditioning may have the answer.
Companies like SeaWorld are simultaneously a symptom and a cause of this performer metaphor. Their facilities are sites where the collective misunderstanding of animals is acted out and disseminated into popular culture.

The last two weeks have seen a slew of other-than-human animals become casualties in the quest for the perfect #selfie.

The incident that drew the most ire was the death of a small Franciscana dolphin, who was killed by a "mob of selfie-crazed tourists" last  month on a beach in Argentina.

The response to the event was predictable: major media outlets published articles with inflammatory headlines; comment sections and social media threads were overrun with vitriol, demanding those involved to be convicted of a crime or worse.

Petitions were even launched in a bid to create laws prohibiting selfie-taking with wild animals and while it is understandable, the anger and demands for justice will not change anything as long as the systemic underpinnings of these events go unquestioned.

The tragic incident in Argentina is symptomatic of deeper issues that stem from the collective narcissim and increasing isolation from the natural world that Western culture perpetuates. Rather than lambasting the individuals taking the selfies, we ought to examine our own conditioning and see how we might operate differently in the world.

For our next trick: 'human' vs 'nature'

It was Western culture that first dreamed up the notion that 'humans' and 'nature' are somehow separate. This dichotomy holds that human beings are inherently superior to all other animals, alleging that we the only ones capable of cognition or experiencing emotions. We're told that efforts to communicate with other animals or to develop relationships that aren't based on total domination are simply futile.

Despite this very thorough conditioning, many people still desire a deeper connection with other animals and the more-than-human world, a connection that was implicit in all human lives before the dawn of 'modern civilization' and the colonization and decimation of other cultures. A closer look at the 'crazed mob' on the beach that day seems to reveal this desire for connection:

Notice that the people were not intentionally abusing the dolphin. There were cries among the crowd to place her back in the water. When she died, reportedly from dehydration, people came forward to tenderly stroke her, seemingly overcome with a dawning sense of sadness and regret.

These are not the actions of monstrous people who should be condemned. These are the actions of people who are being taught to fundamentally misunderstand other animals, to treat them like objects rather than the aware, sensitive beings they truly are.

Lights, camera ... nature?

The incident illustrates one of the ways that Western culture mediates our relationships with other animals in order to reinforce the illusory barrier between 'humans' and 'nature'. Tema Milstein calls this the 'performer metaphor' where humans are the spectators and nature is the entertainer.

Milstein points out how, in North America at least, the language used to describe encounters with wild animals is largely linked to entertainment: "That whale really put on a show", or "that bird is showing off." The examples are endless.

Companies like SeaWorld are simultaneously a symptom and a cause of this performer metaphor. Their facilities are sites where the collective misunderstanding of animals is acted out and disseminated into popular culture.

Thousands of largely young and impressionable people who visit SeaWorld each year are exposed to the performative metaphor in its purest form: they, as the audience, applaud as the cetaceans are forced to go through their trained routines. They leave with the impression that what they have witnessed is part of the natural order of things: that this is how humans ought to relate to cetaceans and other animals.

SeaWorld should have acknowledged the part their industry played in the death of the small Franciscana dolphin. Instead, they released a snarkily-worded blog that admonished people for taking selfies with the dolphin. According to SeaWorld, one should not "pass around the ... animal like a prop to get a good selfie. And yes, taking a stranded young dolphin out of the water to take selfies with it falls under harassment."

This may be true. But coming from SeaWorld, this advice is ironic since their entire business model is predicated on removing cetaceans from the oceans, forcing them to perform shows, and - wait for it - charging people money to take selfies with them. SeaWorld's explicit acting-out of the performer metaphor is what helps transform dolphins, captive or stranded, into props for photos.

Of course, not everyone in Westernized culture views the more-than-human world through a performative lens. However, this perspective remains quite pervasive and, according to Milstein, it actively inhibits alternative ways of understanding and relating.

"The performer metaphor is so predominant in Western settings that at times we have a difficult time speaking, and perhaps even perceiving, differently", she suggests. "So, when we say things like, 'those manatees enjoy performing for us', we may actually believe it."

As cities grow larger and fewer people have the opportunity to develop their own perspectives, the performer metaphor's influence may continue to grow.

All the world's a selfie!

Anthropocentrism, the idea that humankind is the most important element of existence, is another unique facet of the human / nature divide that has colonized much of the world today. Simply put, anthropocentrism is narcissism on a cultural scale.

This is manifested when, for example, entire landscapes are transformed to be suited to the needs of 'modern civilization', done at the expense of both human and nonhuman 'others'. The opinions, desires and needs of indigenous communities, of cetacean communities, of the multitude of other-than-human communities, are unequivocally and thoroughly dismissed.

Some say that the selfie is the epitome of individual narcissism. The rise in selfie popularity seems to align with the trajectory of Western anthropocentrism, as both climb to a fevered pitch. Gone are the days when people were content to take photos where the landscape or other animals were the central features.

Now, humans are often centered in these shots, as though the scenes would be meaningless without a human face. The world increasingly exists as a mere backdrop for the comings and goings of Westernized humanity.

Selfies can be inflammatory, and for good reason. Many animals have died for selfies, but billions more have died from rampant human self-centeredness. Selfies bring into visceral focus our ailing relations with the more-than-human world, and this focus is uncomfortable to reckon with.

But reckon with it we should. We can do this by first recognizing where the problems lay: within the Western framing of the world we experience. Only when we have done this can we begin imagining alternative ways of being together, where we can co-create a more compassionate and understanding world for all species.

Only when we put down the selfie stick and really look at the 'more than human' world will we begin to reclaim the connections that Western culture has hidden from us. There is a whole Universe that awaits us beyond the illusion.



Petition: 'Give Dolphins and Whales the Right to be Alive!'

Laura Bridgeman Laura Bridgeman is director of Sonar, a new dolphin and whale protection organization. Follow Sonar on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here