WILL LANDIS-CROFT, Filling Station, Digital Art. Grade 12, Saint Mary's Academy, Portland, OR

WILL LANDIS-CROFT, Filling Station, Digital Art. Grade 12, Saint Mary’s Academy, Portland, OR

In week six of our series featuring the 2019 Gold Medal Portfolio recipients, we take a look at two teens who explore controversial, yet personal, topics in their works. Will Landis-Croft is an artist while Divjot Walia is a writer. Both received $10,000 scholarships for their portfolios.

WILL LANDIS-CROFT

“Christianity and consumer culture in America are inseparable. Each offer salvation, a temporary solution to the despair which otherwise plagues the nation. Yet this combination simultaneously cheapens the religion, reducing it to a justification for greed and violence. From the Iraq War to televangelism to money-obsessed churches to missionary imperialism, capitalism and religion act in a vicious cycle to spiral society toward chaos. “[T]he precious blood at the foot of the cross becomes mere Kool-Aid to refresh upwardly mobile aspirants in the nihilistic American game of power and might,” reflects Cornel West, ultimately concluding that American Christianity perpetuates institutional evil in the name of holiness. My images juxtapose religious imagery with consumer icons, revealing the hypocrisy of believing that these two value systems are morally compatible.”

DIVJOT WALIA

“I aim to paint a picture of myself not through direct description, but through an exploration of the controversial topics and ethical dilemmas that have shaped my passions and opinions. Furthermore, I hope to illustrate key epiphanies and discoveries that have occurred throughout my personal endeavors. But perhaps most importantly, I hope to share an insight into my own passage of time, which is immortalized through these words. This is the role writing plays in my life; it is the act of recording feelings and emotions for future reflection.”

Consider the Elephant
DIVJOT WALIA, Critical Essay. Grade 12, Glenda Dawson High School, Pearland, TX

When thinking of elephants, my mind lists the obvious: ivory trade, elephant meat, and trophy hunting. Political correctness aside, I had to wonder—who cares? Does my life, writing in the middle of urban America, rely on the well-being of the sub-Saharan African ecosystem?[1]

It was then I remembered—I, in fact, had been impacted by an elephant almost a decade ago.

***

It was my first time visiting India—I was seven years old, and my mother compelled me to ride an elephant with my Indian-native cousins in Delhi’s most touristy district. I admired the elephant’s grey leathery skin, grasping on to its wrinkles as I, with the aid of a callous Indian man, climbed upon it. The same Indian man began striking the elephant with a whip, presumably to coerce the visibly apathetic animal to begin the ride. My cousin, eleven at the time, desperately called out, “Stop! Please! Be gentler!” But the man, desensitized to such moral concerns, continued his abuse of the animal. I rocked back and forth as the ride continued. I am not scared— I attempted to convince myself. My cousin continued to cry out at the man to lessen the severity of the whip, and I, wanting nothing to do with the adult discourse taking place before me (in a language I spoke very loosely at the time), dismounted off the elephant and leaped into my mother’s arms.

I glared at the elephant, and it stared back at me, with striking ambivalence.

***

The passing years have seemed to erase the image of the elephant from my consciousness; thus, I resolved to conduct a brief Google Image search of the term “elephant.”  These elephants were not banded up, whipped by a callous Indian man, or saddled with Indian-American tourists sitting atop them. The animals I saw were social, yet solitary; majestic, yet playful. The sub-Saharan sun shined behind the scenery as what I can only describe as “grandpa elephants” stared wisely into the expanse of light green grass, mother elephants guarded their elephant babies, and schools of elephant children gathered to play games and take a dip in the local drinking hole. As my cursor moved down the page, I began to understand it more and more: it is true—elephants are adorable.

One particular elephant seemed to pop out. It was a newborn elephant, likely no more than a few days old. His trunk bent, the newborn sprayed a stream of pond water on his still tender, leathery skin. His smile was unlike any other emotion I’d seen from an animal. It was so human, and so innocent, that I waited for the elephant to ask me, “Hey! How’s it going?” I waited for the elephant to turn into a Disney-fied version of itself—for it to do a few spins and give me an overly-enthusiastic fist-bump before breaking out into a perfectly choreographed dance to heavily-copyrighted, upbeat music.

In reality, I waited for the elephant to fulfill some cute mold I’d cut out for it—long before I conducted the Google Image search.

Nine years after I met my first elephant, I will never forget the stare it gave me as I dismounted it. I had even forgotten about that callous Indian man, and how he likely abused the elephant for the equivalent of less than a couple dollars a day. But the only lesson I deduced is that of moral outrage on the elephant’s behalf.

I evaluated my own moral repugnance. I stand idle, observing all other injustices that occur in a developing country such as India, but when it comes to striking an animal (who happens to have incredibly thick skin), I draw the line. 

***

But again, elephants are cute.

And it is with this cuteness that elephants invoke the je ne sais quoi my society finds so enduring. Yet, we all agree, almost pretentiously: elephants are a reflection of us humans, but without all the war, genocide, and violence. Even science seems to approve.

Looking down the taxonomical tree, elephants belong to the class Mammalia. (Even without Latin lessons, most recognize that mammal is an overwhelmingly broad class.) On the next taxonomic level, we see the infraclass Eutheria, which, while quite a bit more Latin-sounding, only happens to include a general grouping of animals who use placentas.[2] To clear further confusion, scientists have classified elephants into the order Proboscidean and the family Elephantidae, which both are essentially synonyms for elephant (Britannica). Ultimately, elephants are so unique that all their taxonomic relatives are long-extinct, and to expand to a broader category would place elephants and humans in the same classification (National Geographic).

Yet this comparison to humans begins to seem rather valid upon examining behavior. Elephants have a 22-month gestation period, and for mother elephants, having a “baby” elephant is quite an investment, due to the baby’s large size and many needs (Britannica; National Geographic). Once labor is complete, the baby elephant is slowly weaned off its mother’s milk; like other placental mammals, elephants are rather useless immediately after birth. After the elephant’s useless infant years have passed, however, the elephant will begin using its large, muscle-laden trunk to do what can only be described as shaking hands to greet its elephant brethren. An adolescence of exploration later, the elephant loses its baby teeth, and will reach sexual maturity in its twenties, and die at age eighty (Britannica)And in this death, there is no reason why we should not suspect elephants feel grief, as evidence of elephants stroking a dead family member’s remains or gathering in grief huddles exists; it is not unscientific to attribute the human emotion of grief to this animal behavior—to do so would be the only scientific explanation for such observations.

All of this considered, elephants are basically massive, wrinkly humans. The lifecycles of both species track almost uncannily, and taxonomically, science has little refutation. Both species have no close relatives but themselves, and both, without clothes, look awkwardly hairless and wrinkly compared to their more distant mammal cousins. Related by weirdness, it is no surprise the two species have had such a rich and intertwined history (Britannica). In fact, elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror—much like we can recognize ourselves by looking at the elephant (National Geographic).

But why then, if elephants so uncannily reflect humankind, do we tie them up and subject them to the whims of our entertainment needs? After all, elephants excel in the brain-to-body mass ratio category, high in the ranks among the likes of the great apes and dolphins. Aristotle even noticed this without the aid of science, calling elephants “the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind.”

Despite this, and especially in countries like India, the seemingly innocent elephant offering itself for riding has more than likely been illegally captured. Yet wild elephants would never allow a human to ride atop its back, so baby elephants must have their spirits crushed in a process called Phajann (literally, “the crush”), which involves isolation from their mothers and confinement in small spaces, starvation, and physical abuse. Keep in mind: biologically, the elephant spine is not meant for supporting anything—let alone a husky Western tourist.  And so naturally, elephant tourism is a prominent issue in Asia, with (largely Western) tourists wanting to ride, wash, and touch the animals. I think to myself: even I have found myself among this class. Yet, despite all alarmism, I ultimately may not have to feel so guilty. And to this prospect, I became excited—I may have a way to justify my moral repugnance.  

Elephant tourism leads to a rise in elephant numbers, which would otherwise be critically low. Thus, the cruelty of the elephant tourism world is largely a product of a lack of planning and consideration, rather than the moral repugnance of the practice itself. Leaders of elephant departments in parks assert that elephants have no habitat to begin with, and their programs offer the only hope for the continuation of the species. Furthermore, to the argument against elephant tourism in countries like India, many argue that the individuals in these locales need their jobs. Ought we value the economic benefit of humans over the abstract moral benefit of elephants?

To me, the answer must be no. I like to think of myself as morally righteous, yet realistically, I have little remorse for my irrational and disproportionate concern over elephant humanity. The elephant has a large amount of “pretty privilege,” as there are countless organizations devoted to its well-being, with no real consideration to its correlated ecological impact. It is only because elephants are cute that society displays a strange, almost cult-like fascination with them, that Google Images depicts them in such a romantic light, and that my experience in India has stuck with me for such an unexpected amount of time. We see the elephant as one of us—we impose our human emotions onto the distinctly non-human ways of the elephant (such a process is known as “anthropomorphism”). Elephants are cute, and their cute behavior reminds us of them. Thus, we are justified in connecting this behavior to ourselves, because doing so is simply an observation followed by the most plausible explanation. And compared to the other injustices of the world, the Phajann of the elephant, objectively, dwindles into obscurity. But subjectively, it means so much more.

I refuse to entertain the idea that I care so deeply about the well-being of elephants simply because some MRI scans show some interesting patterns of color in an elephant’s brain (that may or may not be like those found in human brains). I refuse to entertain the incessant need to take the moral high ground. I refuse to entertain society, and to its constructs, I say: “Elephants are cute, and I feel bad if a cute thing also looks like a sad thing. The complexity ends there.” My seven-year-old self needed no MRI to justify this, and neither do I. And perhaps this is hypocritical, but that does not make its impact any less tangible. As a higher being, my visual pleasure ought to be valued above all else—the science begins to matter very little, not just to “society[3],” but to myself as well. At any rate, I stay true to the seven-year-old version of myself—the one who found that elephant unequivocally cute, and nothing more.

Ultimately, I have the same means of objectifying these moral considerations as the elephant has of understanding the clattering of my keyboard as I type this paragraph.

To see more Gold Medal Portfolio recipients, past and present, visit our Eyes on the Prize series.

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