When it comes to beasts the bourgeois have the tenderness of angels. They feel themselves to be closer relatives of beasts than of workers.
-Paul Lafargue, Bourgeois Sentimentalism, 1881
The above quotation is how Paul Lafargue begins the short piece Bourgeois Sentimentalism, and that is the very topic I want to try to cover today–bourgeois sentimentalism. That mask of tear-jerking, charitable philanthropy hiding the bourgeoisie’s at best indifferent, at worst disdainful view of the mass of humanity, the toiling oppressed.
The label “philanthropist” is a quick and easy defense mechanism for the oppressors to use whenever their oppression is being exposed. More CEOs, finance giants, celebrities, and other members or allies of the owning class are more well known in the social world for their “humble philanthropy” than their ruthless exploitation of workers around the world. We’re supposed to applaud the wealthy minority whenever they “give back” that which they have stolen, or when they take some small step to “make up for” the disasters enacted by their class and the system it oversees.
But even in this, there is something of a hierarchy of good-heartedness. We hear more about those members of the bourgeois who give a fraction of their wealth to help animal life than we do about those who give to organizations who feed the hungry. This isn’t to say that those who do the latter should be called heroes, when it is their class that allows so many to go hungry in the first place. (The problem is that we live in a society where these insufficient charities are necessary.) The point is that the bourgeoisie can’t hide their hate towards the working masses, because, if they did try to hide it, the people might start feeling empowered themselves. Bourgeois sentimentalism towards beasts is a better form of propaganda, casting humanity as the “evil” and thus hindering the formation of mass unity in the name of what basically comes down to misanthropy.
Bourgeois sentimentalism is for everything and everyone, except for the oppressed.
I’m sure that by now everyone knows the name of Harambe, the silverback gorilla that was recently shot at the Cincinnati Zoo. The incident was, indeed, a tragedy. An endangered species lost one of its members. There is nothing fun or entertaining in that. However, what I find bothersome are the reactions of many people following the incident. This is the latest evidence in the case against bourgeois sentimentalism and its social effects.
I am not a zoologist or an expert in any way. But neither are a lot of people, though some seem to think using a hashtag is all the training they would need. They read a few articles meant to tug at their heartstrings, and now they seem to think they would have handled the situation perfectly. Some claim they have come up with a method where no child or animal could have been hurt(much like the gun-toting conservatives who respond to any case of mass shooting with “If I had been there…”). And some others have thought of a much more gruesome(and telling) solution–let the kid die because the parents were “stupid”.
Yes, since the parents weren’t as intelligent as some person posting a status on Facebook, a child should have been left to the mercies of a gorilla ten times his size.
There is nothing wrong with mourning the death of a beautiful animal, but there is most certainly something wrong with putting the life of that animal above the life of a human child. And this is exactly what is wrong with bourgeois sentimentalism–heartlessness behind a veil of a very conditional form of caring. Human life is already trumped by the profit motive, so why not put it beneath animal life as well?
I don’t want to enter the pointless, retrospective debate about what should have been done. But I do want to say that there was no “good” outcome in the realm of possiblities. If the gorilla had turned violent, there would still be people blaming the zoo(and rightfully so, in that case). The mother of the child would still be shamed by the keyboard warriors. And those calling for the release of these endangered animals seem to forget where and how these creatures became endangered in the first place. Yes, the zoo needs more protective barriers. But the fact is that we can’t go back in time–the kid fell in and a decision had to be made. I believe the zookeepers made the right call, but that’s neither here nor there.
Anyway, I’m not one to compete in the Edginess Olympics by saying that everyone needs to worry about everything equally. But that doesn’t apply when it comes to human rights versus animal rights, especially when the former is being sacrificed for the latter. This is the strength of bourgeois sentimentalism: Among the politically apathetic, there are always spikes in caring about one issue or another, but never when those issues affect human life. Those who can go about their lives never thinking about the plight of the oppressed will put everything on hold when an animal is harmed, or when a natural space is being invaded by us terrible humans. They wait for the right opportunity to show off their enormous hearts, but only when it doesn’t step on their angsty, misanthropic personas.
Whenever the Chinese festival of Yulin comes around, I have to prepare myself for the avalanche of racist comments coming from these golden-hearted liberals. This is when their national-cultural chauvinism really comes out. Now, personally, I love dogs, but I understand that this connection is a cultural norm where I live, and that there are different cultures and traditions all around the world. Not every culture views certain animals in the same way we do, nor should they be forced to.
If you don’t see the problem, let me spell it out. People who never show any interest for any movement working for the betterment of human life(who often, actually, show a clear disdain for such movements) will suddenly become temporary internet activists. They’ll scroll right past videos of police brutalizing an African-American and search for videos of dead animals to share around in their moment of caring. Even worse, they’ll repeat the words of a pretentious rock icon and call the Chinese people “less than human.”
Let’s get this straight, folks who are angry that animals are being eaten decide that the best way to criticize it is by making incredibly racist comments, call a billion humans a “subspecies,” and all in the name of creatures who are legitimately of another species. Not only is that horrifically offensive, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and it shows the real ideology behind bourgeois sentimentalism. Reactionary, privileged, and fascistic.
The faux-progressivism created by bourgeois sentimentalism is felt everywhere. In my city, there is a campaign going on to save an historic piece of land from being used for overflow parking for the local zoo. There is nothing at all intrinsically wrong with that. Sure, it’s frustrating to see a bunch of people going on picnics and calling it a “protest,” but they aren’t hurting anyone in doing so. But the problem becomes evident when you see the numbers these people can bring out, and then compare it to the relatively smaller turnout for protests against low wages or police brutality. When I and others have brought this up, the default response has been, “Well, we can care about both poverty and the park!” And that is a true statement. But the fact is, they only act on one and not the other. I told everyone I knew who participated in that campaign about an upcoming Fight for $15 rally. Not a single one of them showed up, even those who said they would. I complimented their efforts in their campaign and told them that we could use their skills in organizing, but they had apparently given all they had to that field of grass.
I’m not trying to be an elitist here, but I won’t stop saying that the human condition is of more importance than shallow sentimentalism. I don’t think of myself as better than any of those people, but I certainly get the feeling that they think that way towards anyone who doesn’t share their militancy on that particular issue.
So, this is what bourgeois sentimentalism results in: A false sense of nobility in caring about anything except the oppressed masses. A cheap attempt at feigning empathy. Indifference, racism, and anti-workerism disguised as good deeds. A way to make the people feel as if they are doing something when they aren’t fighting the sources of the world’s problems or uprooting this oppressive, exploitative system.
If you don’t care about your fellow humans, don’t pretend to care at all. We see right through you.