The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.
On a Cross-Residential College trip to Shedd Aquarium, I saw the suction cups of an octopus curled in on itself in the corner of a tank, a gigantic crab that was just a tad too slow to get his dinner, little fish, big fish and even a stingray – which I got to touch. In classic millennial fashion, I documented the whole trip on Snapchat, and at the end of the trip I got a call from my sister berating me about co-signing on the captivity of dolphins.
Dolphins should not be held captive for a few reasons: They cannot communicate outside their pod, and they have a consciousness and complexity that suggests they may understand the difference between captive and free. Had they ever experienced freedom, maybe they would, but as it is, these dolphins were bred in captivity, have never experienced open waters and are cared for extremely well by the staff of Shedd.
I understood the irate nature of my beloved sister’s phone call. She has been a vocal anti-captivity advocate since she saw Free Willy. Orca whales, or killer whales, are a type of oceanic dolphin that should never be held in captivity. There is no way to humanely or ethically house them – they are far too intelligent and far too large to happily live in captivity.
And yet knowing all of this, the phone call still bummed me out. The day was really positive and informational. In a time when it feels like Mother Earth is either killing herself or trying to terminate us for treating her so horribly as a species, it is certainly uplifting to see a place making moves to aid endangered animals and raise awareness of our accountability. Shedd Aquarium reminds us what a beautiful planet we have been gifted.
I understood what my sister was saying and why she was upset ... nonetheless, it didn’t make a lot of sense to be irate with me. It was a free day at the aquarium, which means that neither I nor Northwestern financed it. The experience was also positive and uplifting for me, which begs the question: What should I have done?
Sacrificing such a positive experience to make a statement about the practices of a mammoth organization with more power, clout and money than any one person could battle is nonsensical. Consider the protests around the North Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the ways people came out in support of that cause. There were people who showed up on the front lines and donated their time, money and energy to standing tall with the Standing Rock Sioux. And then there were those like Sarah Silverman who encouraged people to move their money from big banks that invested in DAPL such as Bank of America or Wells Fargo to credit unions.
I applaud Silverman and those who did the same, but we would be remiss to pretend that a few hundred people doing that would change anything, let alone stop the process of the pipeline that has so many more components to it than bank investments.
Consider the stake that just banks have in our nation – beyond pipelines and into neighborhoods, employment, education and just about anything else. Banks have a solid stake in daily aspects of our lives and we will not escape this oppressive presence with individual maneuvers.
It’s backward, and places too much responsibility on the individual.
Let me suggest that, instead of pitting individuals against institutions, we pit institutions against institutions and individuals against individuals and allow people to change their personal and social worlds with tangible, meaningful action.
This is not intended to discourage people from protests or boycotts of institutions, especially not ones that are organized and far-reaching. It is not to imply that we should not resist. Instead, I mean to say that we should resist smartly. Challenging your own socialized prejudices, supporting Black businesses or buying authentically created Native American fashion are all their own forms of resisting. If change is to be made, all of these actions must be utilized.
I had to ask myself: Why go to bat for Shedd? This institution doesn’t pay my bills or feed my children.
Recently, I have been trying to find the positivity in places and appreciate moments for what they are. I am concerned about our world and how we can change and fix it every day. It is easy to forget in this sad, sad world that we have to look out for ourselves and our brains, just as much as we need to look out for other people and other living things.
I found some light in Shedd Aquarium; I have found light in other deeply flawed institutions and I will continue to do so, because things we care about and interact with are rarely just net evil or net good.