Jane Goodall, who has dedicated her life to the study and protection of chimpanzees, once said, “Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.” These are wise words.
Unfortunately, there are times when such an approach isn’t possible, as some people are utterly unwilling to listen to the views of those who disagree with them. An example of this is the dolphin hunters of Japan who slaughter dolphins by the hundreds each year. They consistently react to any criticism with hostility and do all they can to cover up their actions, trying to prevent the Japanese public from learning that a dolphin slaughter is taking place in their own country. Communicating with Japanese dolphin hunters, therefore, is not an option, although Dolphin Project continues to reach out to the Taiji town government and others in a continuing attempt to open up lines of communication. One way of stopping the dolphin slaughter is by exposing it to the Japanese public so that they can speak out against it.
In the Faroe Islands, where hunters kill long-finned pilot whales in a slaughter known there as grindadráp, we are dealing with a quite different scenario. Everyone there knows about the slaughter, which has been going on for centuries. Faroese whale hunters do not try to hide it from the rest of the world. They are extremely approachable and willing to talk to outsiders about it. During my visits to these islands, I have always been met with hospitality, even by whalers who knew that I was there to write about the pilot whale slaughter that attracts criticism from all over the world. As long as someone approaches them in a peaceful manner, they will listen to an outsider´s point of view.
This, I believe, is tremendously valuable, as it creates an opportunity for creating change through communication. Such a change is much needed: Pilot whales that enter Faroese waters still face the threat of agonizing butchery, even though more than five years ago Faroese physicians warned that their meat and blubber are heavily contaminated with mercury and other toxins and consumption is linked to serious health risks in humans. Although the demand for whale meat and blubber has gone down drastically in recent years, the pilot whale slaughter continues unchanged, whereby entire schools of the highly complex and social marine mammals are eradicated at a time.
In order to help save the pilot whales, we, as outsiders, must focus our efforts on supporting those in the Faroe Islands who oppose pilot whaling and work from within to stop it. And we need to make more of an effort to influence the minds of those in the Faroe Islands who still think killing pilot whales is justified. People who react to the whale slaughter with negative stereotyping and verbal assaults waste far too much energy. Their derogatory outbursts circulate on the Internet and in social media. Comments on various Facebook pages dedicated to the welfare of pilot whales have been particularly vicious: “Barbaric and sick people, God will curse you all!” “The Faroese people have no brains to think!” “Retarded bastards!” “May you all burn up in hell!” One Facebook comment refers to the health dangers linked to consumption: “I hope that the Faroese people poison themselves to a point where they can no longer reproduce.” Some people in their comments go to the extremes of encouraging physical violence as a way of stopping the slaughter: “If I know the person behind all of this, I will not hesitate to kill him,” and “Someone ought to blow these islands up once and for all.”
The people behind comments such as these effectively negatively stereotype an entire group of people, labeling all inhabitants of the Faroe Islands as cold-hearted whale killers. In reality, only a small percentage of the population takes part in the pilot whale slaughter, and during my visits to the Faroe Islands, I was surprised at how many among the younger generation want to see it stop. Several of them said that they feel for the whales and recognize their suffering. They are aware of the international criticism of pilot whaling, and the negative stereotyping directed at the Faroese people bothers them greatly. “I wish that outsiders would realize how upsetting it can be to be called a whale killer when you´ve never harmed a pilot whale and never would,” one of them said. Several whale hunters pointed out that verbal aggression could never make them change their minds about whaling. “I just can´t take such comments seriously,” one of them said.
And that is what negative stereotyping does: It shuts down all possibilities of dialog. It will never save a single pilot whale from butchery, and I sometimes wonder if the welfare of pilot whales is even the main focus of those who resort to verbal aggression in response to the slaughter. Their reaction appears to be driven by a desire to lash out with anger and contempt at another group of people, and in their mind, therefore, a person is guilty of wrongdoing simply by being Faroese. By painting all Faroese people as the very essence of evil, they have created an enemy worthy of a massive verbal attack, and that may in fact be all that they are looking for.
It is an effortless strategy that does not require much thought. Once the inhabitants of an entire nation have been judged and labeled as ferocious whale killers, what else is there to know about them? No communication with the Faroese people is required. No sense of curiosity is needed. Not even the slightest attempt to try to understand the multifaceted society of the Faroe Islands is warranted. Ethnic hatred spreads quickly in cyberspace, and the more people buy into it and repeat its judgmental slurs, the bigger and more harmful it grows.
I recently read a comment on Facebook describing the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands as “so-called humans.” Such a comment comes from a place of supremacy. It is based on the assumption that some people are superior to others, and this is by far the most damaging effect of the wide-spread discrimination against the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands: It serves to dehumanize them as a people. It discounts the value of each individual human being and contains an inbuilt inability to imagine that a positive change could happen from within Faroese society. Any change happens because individuals make it happen. To believe in the possibility of change, one must recognize the value of the individual. Negative stereotyping does the opposite. It creates a hate-filled atmosphere of hopelessness and doom, and in the minds of those who thrive in it, there simply is no room for things to ever get better.
Anyone who travels to the Faroe Islands and takes the time to connect with the people there will realize that it is a nation rich in diversity and different opinions. It consists of individuals each with their own way of viewing the world. I have talked to whalers who said that they are beginning to see pilot whales in a new light and are questioning the validity of the slaughter for the first time in their lives. Many others, of course, refuse to change their ways and insist that they will hunt whales for as long as they live. But they, too, are aware that times are changing. They know that some among the younger generation refuse to carry on the slaughter. Some whale hunters have children who have never tasted pilot whale and have no desire to take part in the carnage. Those who resort to ethnic discrimination against the Faroese people will never see this change taking place, nor will they ever be a part of it. Blinded by anger, all they see are three-headed monsters and heartless jerks.
If they would just let go of their bigotry for a moment, perhaps they, too, would begin to view the Faroese people as real people rather than reflections of their own prejudgment.
Photo of Faroese boats by Helene O’Barry.