According to press reports, Koko, the gorilla adept at sign language, seemed saddened to hear the news of the death of Robin Williams, whom the gorilla met once in 2001 (and bonded with immediately). I cannot fathom the ethical reasoning behind telling Koko about Williams’s death. What is the point of telling her about the death of someone she met once, 13 years ago? The press reports dwelt on the fact that she appeared sad. I don’t think any of us can know if she was sad or not — but even if this news opens the possibility of making her unhappy, it seems cruel to bring this into her life. What moral purpose does it serve? RITA LONG, OAKLAND, CALIF.
But as I read this, it occurred to me that if it is in fact inethical to tell Koko the Sign-Language Gorilla about Robin Williams's death because it made her sad, by the same logic, it should be inethical to tell anyone anything that will make them sad.
But when Robin Williams died, my first reaction was to tell people, even though I knew it would make them sad.
Why was this my reaction? Is it in fact ethical?
Let's explore this:
As soon as I first heard of Robin Williams's death, I tweeted it. That was to address my own emotional needs without the consideration of the needs of others. I was shocked and needed to get the shock out of my system by sharing it.
But then I went on to share it directly with people whom I knew to be particular fans of Robin Williams. My thinking was "They love Robin Williams - I must tell them this!" Even though I knew it would make them sad - almost because I knew it would make them sad, although I wasn't telling them because I wanted to make them sad. I was telling them because I felt their fondness for Robin Williams made it imperative that they know.
Of course, when we're talking about human adults in the 21st century, the fact of the matter is they would have heard anyway from media. Koko the Gorilla wouldn't have heard anyway. But the fact that they were going to hear anyway wasn't a factor in my decision to directly share this information with the people whom I knew it would make the most sad.
Let's think about it from the perspective of the person receiving the news. I have no particular emotional attachment to Robin Williams, but what if, dog forbid, it was Eddie Izzard (who, for those of you who are just tuning in, is my hero)? I would be gutted and heartbroken and genuinely in mourning. And I would very much want to know. If Eddie Izzard died and I was never informed, I'd start missing him anyway. After some time had passed, I'd notice that I hadn't heard anything from him lately. No new tours, no new projects, no new tweets. Then I'd start worrying whether everything was okay, and the worrying would persist and the lack of definitive answers would be upsetting. I'd much rather know.
This worry triggered by long-term lack of communication and creative output would apply to the Robin Williams fans in my lives, but somehow I doubt Koko the Gorilla would notice his lack of creative output.
So how I feel about being told of the death of someone I've met before and liked, but I'm not expecting future contact or creative output from?
This has happened twice in recent memory. One was my boss from my old job, who suddenly and unexpectedly died about 10 years after I'd left the job. The other was the grandson of my childhood next-door neighbours, whom I'd met when he was a toddler, and died when he was a teenager.
In both these cases, the news made me sad. With my old boss, the sadness was exacerbated by the fact that I found out too late to send my condolences (which is inapplicable for Robin Williams fans and for Koko the Gorilla). With my neighbours' grandson, the sadness was exacerbated by how young he was and the fact that he'd never gotten to enjoy adult life (which, again, is inapplicable for Robin Williams and for Koko the Gorilla).
If I hadn't found out about these deaths, I would never have noticed the absence of these people. Even if I'd somehow been back in touch with my old job for professional purposes and my old boss wasn't around, I'd assume he'd moved on to something else. And I'd completely forgotten about my interaction with next door's grandson until I heard about his death.
But, despite the fact that I felt sadness at learning of their deaths and wouldn't have felt anything if I remained ignorant of their deaths, I still feel like being informed of them was better than not being informed of them. I haven't been able to fully analyze this feeling in the course of writing this blog post, but I feel like people have the right to know when people they know die.
Therefore, I don't think informing Koko the Sign-Language Gorilla of Robin Williams's death was inethical. I think it was treating her with basic human respect.