The Corner

Croc Hunter’s Apology

Good grief, a lot of people seem to think it’s just plain outrageous that I would suggest Irwin should have apologized for using his infant child as a prop in a crocodile pen. Here’s one of the more vexed readers: 

Mr. Goldberg,

To whom does Steve Irwin owe an apology? We are speaking of a man who was raised around crocodiles: there are pictures of him as a young boy hanging around in the pens, and he is a lot closer than his own child was, with no adult to intervene. But he survived his childhood, and his own children have not been harmed. He and his father knew more about crocodile behavior than pretty much anyone else on the planet. The episode with his child also made me uncomfortable, but I am aware that this comes from my total ignorance of crocodiles. I do not feel any need to forgive him, but then again I don’t believe in false consciousness. I’m not going to emulate him simply because I can, but your idea that he needed to say he was sorry implies that he was responsible for telling people that they didn’t know as much as he did. I think we can figure this out on our own. We don’t need him to sign a confession. As for his demise, I would argue that it exonerates him. It is almost unheard of to be killed by a ray – even for those who have been stung by a ray – and Irwin himself said more than once that if he were to die at the hands of an animal, it would be in a totally unexpected and freakish way. Read the details of the injury he suffered: the man knew what he was talking about. He was a lot of fun, and as selfless as is reasonable to ask of any man. We really ought to let him RIP.

No offense, just doing my part to stamp out creeping totalitarianism in the Corner.

Me: Not everyone is so impassioned — or as concerned about “totalitarianism” — but this sentiment is apparently widely held. A couple quick points. First, I’ve already said the Grizzly Man comparison was inapt, which deals with much of the criticism above about his death.

As for his use of his child, I think people don’t understand my objection — and that’s probably my fault. While I thought it was garish and crude to use his baby as a prop in that way, I have no doubt he was sure his baby was relatively safe from the crocodile. But, as I believe I said at the time, I don’t think the baby was safe from Irwin. This was a 1 month old infant. If you watched the video at the time, you would have seem Irwin swing that baby around without supporting its head. He held it up by its torso as it “walked” in front of the croc. As anybody with a 30 day old child will tell you, that’s a very dangerous way to manhandle an infant. What offended me about it was that he was using the baby as a prop to demonstrate his own mastery of crocodiles while not actually paying heed to his child’s safety. It was an ugly display of showboating, regardless of the crocodilian threat.

As for who he “owes” an apology to, I think there’s a lot of good-faith confusion and disagreement on this point. Irwin’s defenders claim that he had every right to do what he wanted with his kid. That’s true — to a point. We don’t in fact have an absolute right to endanger our children. But put Irwin aside for a moment, since he’s irrelevant to the principled point many readers are making. I think when public figures do stupid or offensive things, they should try to make amends either by clarifying, correcting or apologizing. I say stupid things from time to time (“And then some!” — the Couch). I don’t owe any particular person an apology, but that doesn’t mean an apology isn’t owed. Joe Blow may have no particular claim on my conscience, but my conscience instills a certain obligation on me to do the right thing. We can disagree on the facts about Irwin, but I fail to see how given my view of Irwin’s actions I’m wrong about how I view his obligations.

If you want to use your kid as a prop in the privacy of your home, that’s one thing. But when you do so foolishly in front of millions of people to expand your franchise or cult of personality, you have certain obligations towards truth and decency. I thought Michael Jackson owed an apology to the public for dangling his kid off a balcony too. I’m hard pressed to imagine many of these readers accusing me of “totalitarianism” if I had said at the time that Jackson should have apologized for that. Obligations to civil society and norms of decency are not necessarily “totalitarian.” Sometimes they’re just the mechanisms of this thing some of us call “civilization.”

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