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Saturday, October 25, 2014


Do you get to define your identity or do other people? At what point do you stop correcting them when they call you a monkey but you're really a chimpanzee or a Jew when you're just someone from Israel?

In our quiet isolated environment, we have no identity problems. As far as the eye can see, all is calm and peaceful.

But come into contact with other people, and their assumptions can sometimes grate. No sooner does someone from school find out that my daughter lives with a chimpanzee, then the word "monkey" shows up in the conversation. She used to correct them and say: "No, he's a chimpanzee." But then she got tired of it, and she told me one day that she had stopped correcting them. "That's what they think. They don't know the difference, so I'm not going to bother, anymore."

She also used to ask me why everyone thought she was a Jew, just because we came from Israel. I am almost afraid that one day she will stop correcting them about that, too, because when the vast majority of people think something, then it must be true. It's consensus reality.

"Does your monkey throw poop?" is another common question. Even the ones who know the difference between a chimpanzee and a monkey ask that. When they are told "no," they don't quite believe it.  "The chimps in the zoo throw poop," they observe.

Is it really a good idea for the sake of chimpanzee conservation to put them in cages in the zoo and then have people they don't know come and gape at them? Is that really so much more humane than allowing people to get to know chimpanzees personally in a friendly setting? How they behave depends on how you treat them. "Chimpanzees are a wild animal" is a stereotype that is reinforced by being enforced. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, it's true that Bow is a chimpanzee, and some behaviors come built in. Throwing poop. however, is not one of them. He will display at strangers. He will display for sport. But he is also very friendly and very kind, and he likes to sit quietly with someone he knows and look at pictures and take selfies.

Bow insisted that he wanted us to take selfies yesterday
How do you combat stereotypes when other people seem to have a vested interest in keeping them going? Identity politics is such a dirty area of human interaction.  If your ethnic background gives you an advantage in a certain area of human endeavor -- such as gymnastics for a chimpanzee -- then you are precluded from competing with others who don't have that advantage. If someone employs you to use your inborn skill, then somebody else is bound to cry "exploitation", which is what happens when a chimpanzee is hired to play a chimpanzee in a movie or to perform as an acrobat in the circus. They would rather have a human play a chimpanzee or do the acrobatics. It would be awful if a human were deprived of a job that a chimpanzee can do so much better!

But at the same time, they also don't want anyone to see the basic similarities. Humans and chimpanzees can't live together,  they say, and then they proceed to make laws to make sure that we don't.

Is it the public's fault that they don't know the difference between a monkey and a chimpanzee? Is it their fault that they have never interacted personally with one, so they harbor many prejudices? Or is it the fault of the animal rights propaganda machine? Who really profits from the stereotype?

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