As I walked home from early morning shopping today I came across one. A large and dangerous silverback.
The silverback walked along the side of the road, yelling and shouting obscenities at passing cars and the occasional pedestrian who mistakenly approached him. Nothing he yelled made sense, but all his screams were excessively loud and seemed overwrought, as if he’d gone delusional. This was at 07:00 a.m. in the morning in a normal British town centre.
The silverback I saw was large, with huge shoulders, a sizable belly, and fat arms and legs. He was bald and he had a menacing face. He threatened ‘ordinary’ passers-by with his fists.
The reason he yells, stomps & slaps is that he knows, deep in his heart, his time is up…
An ambulance pulled up, its blue lights flashing, to see if the silverback needed help and perhaps to persuade it to calm down. But the silverback roared at the ambulance-man and threw grocery items at their van, so they drove away. There were no police.
We’ve all seen them, haven’t we? These loud and brutish silverbacks. They came out strong last week, here in England, for the UEFA Euro 2020 football final. But they are always with us. They are a threatening presence on our streets and in our towns and parks. Should we feel sorry for them? Or should we steer clear of them?
When I worked in the parks, we sometimes had reports about a stag (a huge red deer) going “doolally.” Sometimes the biggest and most powerful deer, the ones with the deadliest antlers, go crazy. When they get like this, they attack the garbage bins, fences, trees, and each other and (once in a while) they “get tough” and challenge park visitors. When they get aggressive like this, the park authorities implement a serious “no nonsense” policy and they shoot them. I once asked a gamekeeper, “Why can’t you just use a tranquiliser dart and maybe after they come round, move them somewhere where they can’t cause any trouble?” He said, “Where would that place be? And what would happen to them after that? No, this is the only humane way to deal with them when they go like this. It’s regrettable, but it’s the way nature is...”
The silverback ape, like the emperor deer I just mentioned, knows his time is nearing. He knows he has gone beyond his prime, and that females will now look to younger males in the group to protect them. He still intimidates, he is still very capable, so throws his full weight around, forcing everyone to see how muscular and potent he is, but in truth his time is nearly gone. His show of force might intimidate & shock us, but he knows he already lost his influence. He may be muscular today, he may be formidable too, but he no longer has the authority, the power, or significance he once had. The reason he yells, stomps and slaps is that he knows, deep in his heart, his time is up.
The silverback is a victim of nature…
Before you suggest I might be unreasonably prejudicial about the silverback ape, spare a thought for me! Because I ought to disclose at this point that I have “skin in the game…” Yes, that’s right, I possess all the inherent competences that make me, too, a dangerous silverback. I have all the required features, here they are:
- the silverback is the centre of the troop’s attention
- the silverback makes all the most important decisions for his family and society in general
- the silverback mediates in conflicts
- the silverback determines most of the group’s movements
- the silverback helps find food for his family and provides places to eat
- the silverback takes responsibility for the safety and well-being of the troop
- younger males are often subservient to the silverback and know their place. But as the silverback loses effectiveness, so some younger males will challenge his dominance
Silverbacks produce screams and roars, it’s true. Other apes don’t need to “show off” in this loudmouth way, it’s a thing that only silverbacks will do. And there’s a good natural reason for this: conflict is most often resolved by ritualized displays of aggression, these threatening behaviours are intended to subdue or terrify opponents, without the need to become physical. As a result of their aggressive displays, silverbacks don’t often get into a real fight.
Threatening behaviours follow a common sequence of events that typically have nine steps:
(1) intensifyed yelling or taunting,
(2) ceremonious feeding or immoderate drinking,
(3) standing in an authoritative posture,
(4) throwing things around,
(5) hitting the chest,
(6) kicking things,
(7) running around hysterically,
(8) slapping and breaking things, and
(9) making an unnecessary amount of noise
When a group is attacked (by humans, leopards or other gorillas), an individual silverback will protect the entire group, even at the cost of its own life. This is his key role in society.
Silverbacks have weak social ties, particularly in multi-male groups, and this is because they are in their final climatic stage of development and they see everyone else in the group “below” them in rank. All other group members are considered inferior, weaker, or unworthy of attention.
You can’t treat aggressiveness with aggressiveness…
If a silverback dies, the females, the younger males and their offspring will stay together until they transfer a new silverback to the group. They need a silverback, you see. He serves as protection against all the unknown dangers that threaten the existence of the group.
So how should we deal with the raging silverback? Well, give him distance, that’s obvious. Try not to make eye contact and never get involved… these are the straightforward approaches we all automatically adopt… but, I suggest, they are counterproductive. Because you can’t treat aggressiveness with aggressiveness — and avoiding someone, ignoring them, and pussyfooting around won’t solve the problem, it only exacerbates things — and, anyway, they are aggressive postures too!
To properly deal with a silverback we must understand his pain: he knows it is the end for him, he knows he is losing authority, and his relevance and his sexual vigour. He knows he has passed the most useful moment of his life. He knows new males will soon take over the world he once helped to build, and once presided over.
So let’s address his pain, let’s understand his situation, let’s respond to his agony. The silverback is not the enemy… he is just a victim of nature. Like us, he is suffering. Like us, he is hurting!
Give him space, yes, but also give him protection (even if it’s just from himself.)
Any thoughts? tweet me @neilmach
Words: @neilmach July 2021 ©