Time for a Self(ie)

This photo is all over the Internet since it appeared last year; it has ‘gone viral’. The charming creature in it (the hairy one, closest to the viewer) is a 3-toed sloth. He (I assume the gender pronoun) seems to enjoy being in a selfie with the man below him, holding the magic wand of self-image making. Does that suggest animals are adopting the behavior and attitudes of humans, and getting caught up in the latest expression of self-concern?

Do animals imitate humans? Yes and no. Some animals – typically the ‘higher apes’ – exhibit imitative behavior. Anyone who has watched apes through the glass of a zoo exhibit has seen this, especially when the apes can watch the humans who are watching them. They also mimic each other (as do humans). This is a sure source of competition and conflict, if what the imitator wants to have or do, can’t be had or done. Getting the best bit of food, sitting in the most comfortable place, or mating with the females of the troop, are privileges of the alpha male, and are enforced by him. (Is such sexism a moral issue among animals?)

So long as the natural order is followed, the animal group remains stable (although ‘unfair’ by some standards). That’s because an animal’s behavior is a function of its desires, which are fixed. But if Rene Girard (1923 – 2015) is correct, human desires are not fixed – i.e.compelled by nature – strange as it seems. Humans’ desires typically result from their ability to reflect on themselves in relation to others, which animals don’t share. For this reason, human groups need mechanisms to control the disordering effects of imitation which don’t exist in animal societies.

Girard’s research led him to conclude that imitative behavior in animals (or mimicry) differs from that of humans, which he calls “mimesis“. The latter inevitably leads to violence, which must be dealt with. In fact, he argues effectively that every primal society had a violent origin, where an innocent person was scapegoated for causing the destructive disorder to which mimesis had inevitably led.  The scapegoating is hidden, but discoverable, by an informed reading of the mythical stories and rituals about the tribe’s origins – which are fundamental aspects of its ‘religion’.

The originary violence continues as ritualized sacrifices, until and unless the society evolves enough political power to prohibit ritual killing, and substitute legitimized forms of killing, like war and capital punishment, which is the more civilized style. As is increasingly obvious today, however, the spirit of violence persists in many forms, be it the blood-letting of sports, or the winner-take-all models of corporate and financial business (which are admired) or the suicidal drug abuse in all parts of our society and the casual inner city gang killings (which are decried as inexcusable). Even major religions which speak of God’s love, treat ‘other’ religions hatefully, claiming a monopoly on truth, and God’s blessing.

Does the sloth selfie show that animals are adopting human behavior? I think not. More likely, it’s the other way ’round. People are becoming more animal like – i.e., they feel more free to gratify their natural tendencies in whatever ways they imagine will do that. This is not a change in human tendencies, but a change in human society. Contemporary western society enables, or encourages its members to remain childish, which is not something that animals can do.

I don’t mean people are becoming slothful, in the ordinary meaning of that word. Quite the contrary. Today’s culture demands more and more work, by ordinary people. Getting money is increasingly the direct or indirect goal of what people do with their time. A small percentage of people don’t have to hurry to make money, because they gain wealth from owning rather than by doing. J. S. Mill called them “landlords”. He famously said, “They grow richer, as it were in their sleep, without working, risking, or economizing” (1848).  But most people feel pressed to complete tasks and reach goals that some person above them has determined.

Actually, sloths are not slothful, as their name name has long implied. Nor are they always slow; they can be quite fast. But their activity is governed by their circumstances. Three-toed sloths, like this fellow, have adapted in amazing ways that are only now being studied.

I seriously doubt that the sloth in our featured image is happy to be seen. Most of his behavior is an effort to remain as un-seen as possible. His life depends on it. Not so the man holding the selfie stick. His effort is to increase his visibility, and to be seen by as many people as possible, and boost his image in their minds, since his own self-image may be lacking.

As usual, what ‘goes viral’ makes me ask questions. Where and when did it start? Why is it widespread? What kind of ‘virus’ is it? Is it new, or ‘newsworthy’? Is it harmful? Does it need attention?

On the Web, wide distribution is enabled by popular media – especially social media. But this selfie isn’t part of any sales effort by corporate media wanting viewers. Its  attention-grabbing character and the natural appeal of its subject – not calculated business interests – move people to ‘share’ this, and similar photos. Needless to say, the act of sharing helps the owners of social and corporate media who pick it up and pass it on. But it has a down-side, according to animal activists .

I’ve written before about selfies and image-making of all sorts, in the context of how it advances most those who control the wealth that marketing efforts generate – the so-called ‘One percent’. But perhaps I haven’t dealt fairly with those folks who are caught up in trying to improve their images. A comment I received from Paul at Svatantra Life put my criticism into a better perspective:

For me, my disgust at the selfie culture is now being somewhat moderated by the recognition that 1) they just want to be seen in a culture that has degraded their humanity. They need to be seen to know who they are – As sad as that circumstance is. And 2) underlying it is a real desire to find some meaningful connection to others. How might we steer them towards that?

Nicely said, Paul. As usual, I have no quick answers, and even the long answers are uncertain. Education (I mean knowledge, not schooling) can help people make better choices, both to correct their own perspectives and behavior, but also to correct the wrong directions our society seems to be taking. Yet many things make education hard, as you well know, including our natural  tendency to avoid what isn’t pleasurable. Moreover, the good messages seem to be almost drowned out by the bad. And finally, I think our childish tendency to self-gratification ultimately requires some spiritual assistance (call it divine providence), which in some sense will always depend on individual choices. Not even God can force a person to accept the offer of help, if God is Love itself. Loving and protecting the freedom of the beloved are inseparable, in my opinion. That’s the topic of my book, Modern Or Moral.