February 20, 2007

About the bonobo

At the end of the previous post I asked the question, "What's a Primate to do?" and offered a picture of the Nigerian postage stamp portraying a bonobo "chimp." A number of people rashly accused me of racism -- quite missing my point. I've addressed this in the previous post in a comment. I've also removed the graphic lest there be any further confusion.

I want to take this opportunity to explain at greater length what I intended. I relied, I see now unwisely, on people knowing more about bonobos than apparently they do. One poster over on T19 even seems to think this was a gorilla (in spite of the fact that the stamp is clealy labled.)

Any racist comment was very far from my mind -- so far that it didn't even occur to me that someone might read it that way. Rather, my reference -- in response to the closing question "What's a primate to do?" -- was to the way in which bonobos, probably unique among primates, use sex to settle disputes in their society. You can read more about this at the Columbus Zoo website if you are not already familiar with it. Note in particular under the FAQ the comments:

What are they doing?

Bonobos engage in sexual activities of all sorts— frequently for purposes other than breeding. They use heterosexual and homosexual activities to release excitement and tension. Any erotic behavior employed by man is also used by bonobos.

How are bonobos different from chimpanzees?

Chimps resolve sex issues with power; bonobos resolve power issues with sex. Bonobos believe in "make love, not war." Chimps are known for making war...

It is also ironic that the Nigerian government would choose such an image for one of their stamps. I guess that should have clued me that not everyone knows about the tendency of bonobos to "make love, not war"!

People can learn not to take things at their worst, and to find positive and upbuilding ways to settle differences. That is what I am now trying to do with the material the Primates have placed before us: and at first glance it appears to be very much a mixed bag, and relies too much on pressure and coersion and threats. I would rather have seen a more loving approach. But this is what we will have to deal with in the coming months and years. I will reflect further on this at another time.


Anonymous said...

Why is it that conservatives assume that when you post a picture of a non-human member of the primate family, it invariably signifies a person of color? If humans are genetically related to other primates, including bonobos, doesn't that include humans with white skin? Or do conservatives only think people of color are related to non-human primates, and all white people were specially created by God?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Anonymous (and I'm approving this post because it raises an interesting question, but ask that in future you use a pen-name),

I'm not sure it is only conservatives who do this. But it is an interesting phenomenon. There seems to be a strange kind of speciesism that allows one to call someone a "lion" or a "lamb" but somehow "monkey" (which is actually a closer relation) is not just insulting but "racist." It is a fascinating "meme" and I think, like racism itself, a rather destructive one.

Dennis said...

I think that everyone knows that this was just a chance for conservatives to practice being outraged. They have honed this to a fine art.

One example comes quickly to mind: Remember that when Howard Dean said that he wanted all parties in the Middle East treated fairly they spun this to mean that he was supposedly an antisemite. Anyone who criticizes the Bushites must somehow hate the troops. Look at the mock hurt and outrage that the Dems would not vote on bigoted judges (when they block votes on this damned war). Victimization is a stance for them.

Hurt and victimization are political tools that the right often accuses the left of using but really and truly they are the masters of this. We turned the tables only once recently on them with "macacca" in Virginia.

To these people fake outrage comes naturally. Then their leaders study how to use it in seminars at a rightwing political training center (that a few Anglicans in collars have attended I believe) called the Leadership Institue. I have seen some of their materials: it is discussed and explored. The Leadership Institute is the biggest thing on the American right that progressives and liberals know nothing about. Blog it and explore their site in depth. You will be amazed and see where they have taught themselves to behave in such a manner.

With their leaders demonstrating mock outrage on Fox and CNN, their minions picked it up and practice it regularly.

The only way to shut it down os to laugh at them for being so naive. Call them naive. and then go on the attack for the mock outrage. Otherwise they will try to pin their false victimization on you every time your name comes up.

toujoursdan said...

It didn't strike me as a racist post at all but I wonder if there is a generational mindset at work. I remember that some of the racist terms people in my dad's generation used (1950s) were along those lines.

Anyway, you have made a good point as usual. I enjoy your posts.

Marshall Scott said...

I recently saw an educational television show on bonobos (PBS perhaps?). There was appropriate exploration of the differences in sex between chimpanzees and bonobos; and then one researcher said, "How would it have changed our perceptions of ourselves as primates [in the zoological sense] if we had encountered the bonobos first instead of the chimpanzees?"

One of the important, and I think largely unexplored, differences in perceptions of the Anglican tradition is acceptance or rejection of natural theology. It is important for many of us on the progressive side ("If this is how God created this person, who are we to challenge?"). I would argue it's important for all of us, really, as the ground on which we can assimilate and reflect theologically on any new knowledge. However, "traditionalists" (to use Cantuar's label), with their attempt to claim sola scriptura, reject arguments from natural theology. That becomes clear when the monologue begins, "Nowhere in nature do we see..." only to change when examples from nature are raised.

What indeed would it have meant had we discovered the bonobos first?