Five killer whales performing at “Marineland” in Antibes, southern France in 2008. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty
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What hubris makes us think we can imprison a 22ft killing machine?

Be careful if you watch Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that tells the story of orcas in captivity, framed around the experiences of a 33-year-old male called Tilikum. By the end, you’ll want to stop people in the street to warn them not to visit marine amusement parks.

Idly browsing through Netflix is a dangerous business. For a start, it encourages you to wallow in old sitcoms and cult dramas you’ve watched a dozen times before instead of learning what this newfangled “Scandinavian noir” business is. But sometimes, serendipity leads you to something remarkable – which is how I ended up this weekend turning into an orca liberationist.

I don’t know how to phrase this in a way that won’t get me burned in effigy but – deep breath – here goes. I’m suspicious about animal rights as a political cause because the kind of people who care passionately about them often don’t seem to have too much time for human beings. (A political strategist once told me that he was tasked with converting website visitors who came through single-issue campaigns into full party members; he found the animal lovers the hardest to convince.)

But enough of my prejudice. Even if you’re reading this over a dinner of battery chicken or about to head out on a grouse shoot, you should watch Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that tells the story of orcas in captivity, framed around the experiences of a 33-year-old male called Tilikum. By the end, you’ll want to stop people in the street to warn them not to visit marine amusement parks. (SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for Blackfish; it later published a statement on its website taking issue with several of the film’s claims and called it “propaganda, not a documentary”.)

Tilikum measures 22 and a half feet and weighs roughly 5,400 kilograms. His distinctive dorsal fin lolls uselessly to the side: this happens to most males in captivity. He is Icelandic, which turns out to matter because orcas have highly developed brains and sophisticated ways of communicating: witness the YouTube video in which three of them collaborate like synchronised swimmers to create a wave that dislodges a seal from an ice floe. Yet, for most of his life – he was captured at the age of two – Tilikum has been kept with unrelated orcas from different areas. (It’s like a horrible killer-whale version of Big Brother, only lasting three decades.) In his first home, Sealand in British Columbia, he was trained with other whales using punishment: if he messed up a trick, they’d all have their food withheld. This annoyed the others, so they would rake him with their teeth, causing him to bleed.

Tilikum’s time at Sealand ended in 1992 after he and the other two whales killed Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old competitive swimmer who worked there as a part-time trainer. She slipped into the pool and the whales repeatedly dragged her under, letting her resurface three times to call for help. After her death, Sealand closed and Tilikum moved to SeaWorld in Florida, where in 1999 he was found one morning with a dead, naked man draped over his back. Daniel Dukes had decided to sneak into the pool at night for a magical experience with the orcas. Among many injuries, his scrotum had been torn open.

By this point, my boyfriend had been lured away from whatever task he had begun elsewhere in the flat. “Look at its eyes!” he hissed, pointing out that he is the same age as Tilikum and he would not have appreciated spending most of his life so far in a concrete pool. We agreed that Tilikum had the cold, calculating eyes of a killer – but then, the clue is in the name of his species. Killer whales don’t have any moral prohibition on murder: in the wild, they have to kill to eat. What dawns on you as you watch Blackfish is how arrogant we are to think that we can “tame” such a creature; no matter how long we make them jump for balloons, let us ride on their backs, beach themselves for the applause of a holiday crowd, they are still muscle-bound killing machines with complicated inner lives.

Once you understand that, it’s hard not to watch through your fingers every time a puny human gets in the water with them. In one agonising incident shown in the film, a SeaWorld orca drags a senior trainer repeatedly to the bottom of the pool by the foot, toying with him as it might do with a seal. Only quick thinking by co-workers prevented that from becoming another tragedy.

Dawn Brancheau wasn’t so lucky. The 40-year-old trainer was killed by Tilikum in February 2010 after being pulled into the water. He ripped off her arm at the elbow, scalped her and severed her spine; it took hours to retrieve her body.

Tilikum is still alive and still living at SeaWorld but who – knowing any of this – would want to see him perform? There is no doubt that the park’s trainers love and care for the animals in their charge, but the whole set-up is deeply nauseating. It would feel like gawking at some kind of orca Guantanamo Bay.

Animals make appealing, uncomplicated victims. The irony here is that maybe SeaWorld is right to claim that keeping orcas in captivity, where people can be charmed by them, is the only way to make us care about the dangers they face in the wild. If so, it’s just another piece of evidence of our human selfishness – saving the planet sounds like too much hassle, so let’s make a priority of the entertaining, photogenic animals. Pandas, yes; the other 2,000-odd species that WWF estimates go extinct every year? Nah.

Watching Blackfish has also made me question my holiday habit of heading for a city’s zoo: although the best are world-class research centres, I’ve seen too many where intelligent animals are eking out their days in a glorified car park. Why do I need to reassure myself regularly that giraffes really exist – that they’re not some global conspiracy perpetuated by David Attenborough?

So, no, I wouldn’t go to SeaWorld now - but more than eight million people a year do. Would they still want to if they knew what they were watching? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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