Hari Balasubramanian, in an excellent post, tells us the story of Ota Benga, “a pygmy from the Belgian Congo [who, in 1906,] found himself sharing a cage with an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo, as part of an exhibition intended to illustrate the stages of evolution.” Benga’s filed teeth, Hari writes, which came from “a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people … was mistaken as a sign of cannibalism.” That impression suited the zookeepers, who “scattered bones in the cage.” No one protested.
The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?
This is a great question, and one that I’ll attempt to tackle in a longer piece at some point in time. Let me point out, in the meantime, that we don’t need need to compare different periods of time for such startling contrasts in attitude—we can simply compare continents, or cultures, of today.
For example, the Qatif rape case, where the victim of a gang rape in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes, is no less appalling than Ota Benga’s story. The victim has been ‘pardoned’ after an international outcry, but barring stray cases like this, the West is largely tolerant of such nonsense, even justifying it in the name of cultural differences.
Will a rape victim in Saudi Arabia in 2107 be treated better? I sure hope so. As for Ota Benga, his Wikipedia page tells us that “at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth, performed a final tribal dance, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.”
It’s a relief that he couldn’t be prosecuted for that theft.