Changing Morals and Seaworld's Increasing Deviance in Society

The Deviance of SeaWorld is Defined Through a Sociological Examination - An Interview with R. Johnson, Sociologist, Ph.D. and
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  CHANGING MORALS AND SEAWORLD’S INCREASING DEVIANCE IN SOCIETY  The Deviance of SeaWorld is Defined Through A Sociological Examination An Interview with R. Johnson, Sociologist, Ph.D. I’m here with  Richard Johnson, sociologist, historian, and former professor who has spent over 30 years studying and teaching in the areas of social problems, social norms, and deviance, from both historical and cross-cultural perspectives. I have asked Dr. Johnson to address in particular, the subject of captivity and performance of orcas and how this relates to our society today. Me: Make Greetings and Thank you for being here…  My first thought, when you bring up this topic is that the measure of the moral character of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. (I.e., minorities, handicapped and children.) In our society today, with our knowledge of animal intelligence and increasing understanding of the complexities of marine mammals' social arrangements and family orientations, it’s worth considering them as vulnerable members of society, in a way. Me: I never really thought it in exactly that way. Marine mammal captivity has everything to do with our society’s ethics and morals if you stop and thoroughly examine the issue. Much of my academic attention has been centered on the definition of deviant behavior as a departure from the 'norms’ of a group in a given time and place. It’s interesting how behavior, that at one time in society seems completely acceptable as normal, then because of new knowledge or changes in the power structure (or, I hope and would like to think, because of some form of moral progress), that behavior becomes unacceptable and sociologically 'deviant,' meaning that it is disapproved and 'punished' in some informal or formal manner. We realize that some behaviors that used to be just accepted as a matter of fact are no longer appropriate. I’d like to think that this is happening now with the way we are treating these intelligent sea mammals, the orcas--especially the orcas, because they’re the biggest and largest attraction at the entertainment parks. It seems to me that what I’m hearing now throughout America and many other nations, including legal battles and in some places references to orcas as 'non-human persons,' that it is all very, very reminiscent of the way we used to used to hear debates and justifications about African slaves 200 years ago. At that time, it wasn’t considered odd to talk that way. It was then thought by many that African slaves benefitted from their captivity and 'guidance' by so-called superior beings, and that most of what we did to them must be good for them. You hear a lot of that same thinking with regard to the orcas and dolphins in contemporary times. Obviously, we’ve  come to a point where now we look back on the way we used to perceive and treat certain racial and ethnics groups as totally shameful. I personally think that a few generations down the line, [we] will find it hard to believe that we treated these animals this way. Especially since we now know how intelligent, familial, and even emotional they seem to be with regard to their strong family bonds that are very similar, if not stronger, than ours. I think we will be ashamed as a species from what we’ve done. I think the San Francis co statute, or resolution, is one of the first forms of a strong stance in that direction. It is a real wake-up call. It represents a significant step in the transformation of a behavior from sociologically normal to deviant. Me: We seem to think as a society, that we ’ve come a long way, but perhaps not as far as we think? I remember reading about Thomas Jefferson going back to his Virginia home country and attending and county fair-type celebrations, and how bear-baiting and entertainment like that was just commonplace; it was completely acceptable…  Me: What is bear-baiting exactly? Bear baiting is basically chaining a bear to a pole and letting dogs attack it, and see if the bear can kill the dogs, or if the dogs kill the bear. Often the bear was muzzled so that it had no chance. People place bets on how many dogs the bear can kill, or how long the bear will last. Absolutely bloodthirsty and barbaric to watch an animal ripped to shreds for entertainment, and yet it was totally acceptable by the social norms of that time and place. Not to mention all the awful things that happened with slavery too, that were then considered 'normal.' I cannot help but think of those aspects of our history when I see waterparks and the stories of how these intelligent beings are treated today, and how artificial their environment is. It must be torturous for them to be confined in a closet, basically, and with their whole natural body system of echo-location being based on large ocean spaces territorially ranging from the Arctic to Anarctic Oceans. I'm no biologist, but it seems to me that it’s got to drive them nuts. Me: What is your view on SeaWorld’s claims to be running a conservation program?  I find it a funny definition of conservation to capture them and mistreat them. I suppose there’s a little bit of knowledge that might be gained that way, but I don’t see how it would not be much more scientifically valuable to find that information in the wild in a natural setting. I don’t know that what we find out about orcas in captivity would be valid, being a small sample size in an artificial situation. Me: So what are you saying in regard to the mo rality of today’s society? Well, in a way, I don’t really blame the people in the 60’s, because of just the tone of society then. I don’t blame them for finding it fascinating to see these animals in captivity, and to watch them do tricks. I think that the more attuned and more empathic people were probably bothered by it even then… But now, with so much information, I think the exact same behavior and condoning the same behavior takes on a different moral tone. Morality is not in a vacuum! And when you have an environment of a real knowledge and appreciation of how advanced these animals are, you can’t use the excuse anymore, “Oh we just didn’t know, we thought we were doing them some good.” It’s getting more and more difficult to put up with the corporations, who, in my opinion, are more interested in money, and I think that’s a given, more and more, with the way corporate America is going. I don’t really think education and conservation are their main goals. I think it starts with the basic premise of making a profit and everything gets tweaked, and distorted, and slanted, to try and meet that end. Obviously some of that’s my opinion, I don’t have any hard facts on that in front of me, but I think it’s a widely shared opinion, incl uding shared by people who have researched it much more than I have. Me: Well, It certainly seems that way in the last year with many corporate partnerships dropping their association with SeaWorld and their stocks plunging. That’s what gives me hope.  When something becomes unprofitable to other powerful entities, then you’re going to see the collective consciousness change, because they’re going to start using their clout to alter things. It may in one sense come down to money, but there’s the key ele ment of collective consciousness that is demonstrated in the old story about the 100 th  monkey. You know, things are done one way, and then a new consciousness develops (in the story it is monkeys washing sweet potatoes or something, but that’s really not the point), and the point is the “Threshold Effect.”   This tipping point is when enough people, in that case monkeys, when enough of the members of a group start to see and do things in a new way, it tends to flip, and the new way becomes the acceptable way. The whole definition of acceptable versus deviant behavior, which I started off tal king about earlier, changes. I think that’s really what we’re after here. We need to have certain treatments of animals be thought of as deviant behavior, deviant meaning unacceptable. The real empirical definition of deviant behavior is that negative consequences from mainstream society result from the behavior, and we’re starting to see that. SeaWorld is now getting negative consequences from mainstream society and so their behavior is being redefined from normal to deviant. And that’s a step in the righ t direction for those who care about the treatment of intelligent life. Me: Where do you think we’re heading?  The whole eco- vision of the world is gaining ground and we’re seeing that we’re not on this planet just as a separate species. We’re all in thi s together with the animals and they are, in a way, members of our eco- society for sure. It’s sad to see the amount of money, and business wheeling and dealing and partnerships that are developed, just for the purpose of trying to squeeze the last penny out of this form of entertainment. Me: Are there any other troublesome consequences of this type of entertainment? Well, indirectly, the children are being taught a bad lesson. If you can exploit what is known to be an extremely intelligent, familial mammal, then why not just move the next step over and just exploit the next most vulnerable human being? It teaches [children] to use other living things for your own pleasure instead of appreciating them and giving them the freedom to be themselves. I think some kids will see that. The underlying theme is that of more-powerful beings being allowed to get away with doing whatever they feel they want to do to less-powerful beings for a profit, and for their own convenience, or for a laugh, you know? It’s bu llying! We talk about all this bullying that goes on in school yards; it’s kind of ironic to put on a big anti -bully campaign in schools and then reward the kids for good behavior by taking them to SeaWorld to watch an entire corporate facility bully some orcas. That’s kind of odd if you think about it.
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