The easy morality of Cecil the Lion: Our problem isn't too much outrage — it's that we can't summon enough

Big game hunters are easy targets for our anger. It's harder to recognize the evil we're all complicit in every day

Published August 3, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Lynne Sladky/Reuters/Eric Miller)
(AP/Lynne Sladky/Reuters/Eric Miller)

There are a lot of good reasons to get mad at people who care too much about Cecil the Lion.

We’ve had people speak up about the hypocrisy of people who, by and large, had not heard of Cecil the Lion until this story broke now in high dudgeon over his death despite these same people eating factory-farmed meat and eggs and thus contributing to far greater animal suffering every time they have lunch. This is a criticism that’s inevitable any time any non-vegan expresses affection for any animal, from Barbaro to Blackfish to the massive outcry over the Yulin dog meat festival from a bunch of people who, by and large, eat pork.

There’s also the criticism that we’re showing far more concern for a Zimbabwean lion than we ever have for Zimbabwean humans, and that there are demonstrably far more tweets about this one lion than, say, the 150 people massacred in Zimbabwe in 2008, or the hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans who have been rendered homeless in the past decade. (Admit it, you probably hadn’t heard of Operation Murambatsvina or the Marange massacre before you clicked those links just now--I hadn’t heard of them until I started writing this article.)

And, of course, there’s the frustration over how, even among stories that have successfully inspired online outrage, the Cecil the Lion story has been so much more successful at broad audience appeal than the Sandra Bland story or the Freddie Gray story or the Tamir Rice story.

You’d think that something as extreme as a 12-year-old boy being shot to death by an incompetent cop would be a slam-dunk for universal outrage, but every attempt to rally people behind the #BlackLivesMatter banner because of Rice’s death--or anyone’s death--has been met with a mixture of concern trolling and outright racist attacks. At this moment even the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party is divided over the tepid response of radical socialist messiah Bernie Sanders to #BlackLivesMatter.

By contrast the media speaks with one voice on Cecil. It’s been hard to find even snarky trolls taking the hunter’s side. No one other than himself has spoken in defense of his legal right to hunt down and kill the lion--you’d think from the online reaction that this Minnesota dentist was the only person to ever kill a member of an endangered species for sport, and all the other big-game hunters lying conspicuously low right now are happy to reinforce that impression. Even Newt Gingrich called for the hunter’s arrest, for crying out loud, and Gingrich’s whole political persona is based on defiant contrarianism.

The backlash against Cecil outrage was inevitable and predictable. You can tell by the fact that every backlash think piece starts off with thoroughly explaining that the author of said think piece agrees that Cecil’s death was an atrocity and the hunter should go to prison. It’s the backlash that coalesces whenever everyone is violently and loudly agreeing with each other about how one specific terrible person is terrible, so we have a nice prepackaged way to feel smugly superior. Although the scale of his crime was not anywhere in the same ballpark (and the fact that I have to qualify that shows how out of line the rhetoric has gotten), publicly condemning the hunter who killed Cecil is an act requiring no moral courage at all.

It’s no more meaningful than going onto Facebook to proclaim how much you hate the latest mass shooter, or how much you hate rapists and sex offenders, or how much you hate people who set kittens on fire.

Intellectually, I agree with all of this. I understand that it makes no sense to get mad about something everyone already condemns that doesn’t even involve a human life--when there are so many greater atrocities against vast numbers of lives that people actively defend.

And yet I’m still really mad about Cecil the Lion.

Why? For the same reason I’m mad about hitchBOT, the friendly traveling robot from Canada that some drunk asshole “killed” last weekend.

HitchBOT, from an objective standpoint, merits even less outrage than Cecil; possibly it objectively merits no outrage at all, since it was conceived as a social experiment and its destruction is part of that experiment’s results. We can debate the sentience of animals with animal rights activists all day long, but hitchBOT was very clearly not sentient. Hell, it wasn’t even very smart--judging from descriptions of what it did it was probably a less sophisticated machine than the computer I’m using to write this.

Yet I’m very upset by the end of hitchBOT’s virtual “life,” even though it was just someone breaking a piece of equipment linked to a Twitter account. Even though I know that hitchBOT is just a tin can that some geeks intentionally anthropomorphized by giving it a cutesy face, just like Cecil the Lion is “special” only because he’s named Cecil and referred to as “he” rather than named Lion #4401 and referred to as “it.” Even so I still feel the urge to grieve, and to make Internet Tough Guy remarks about how I’d like to get my hands on whoever “killed” hitchBOT.

It’s widely acknowledged that people get much more distressed over the death of a dog or a cat in a movie than of a human being. Want to make your audience love the hero? Have them save a cat. Want to make your audience hate the villain? Have them kick a dog. It’s far more reliable than trying to characterize them by how they treat their fellow human beings. Just like it’s far easier to get people riled up about excessive force used by SWAT teams when you tell stories of cops shooting the family dog than when you tell stories of them shooting innocent people, so much so that activists against police violence consciously use pet killings as a rallying cause.

I think it’s the pettiness of killing a dog, or killing a lion, or “killing” a robot, compared to killing a woman or man. There’s no way you can possibly spin it as necessary to break hitchBOT or to lure Cecil out of his park and shoot him. The targets are clearly “innocent,” so the killing is clearly gratuitous.

None of the justifications typically given by hunters make any sense for Cecil--he wasn’t killed for food, or population control, or because he was a threat to anyone. The hunter had to go out of his way--indeed, had to spend an exorbitant amount of money--to kill Cecil. All he wanted was the “trophy,” the evidence that he’d had the power to take a life and exercised that power.

HitchBOT wasn’t capable of being a nuisance or a threat to anybody; it wasn’t even capable of moving under its own power. Anyone who didn’t want to play along with the conceit of hitchBOT’s “personhood” could just keep walking. There was nothing to gain by smashing it beyond repair. Nothing except the brief, cheap thrill of being powerful enough to destroy something.

That’s why stories like the story of Cecil the Lion are so upsetting--they reveal that sometimes people are just plain evil, for the petty, childish fun of being evil. That people still do “trophy hunting” that’s less of a test of skill and more paying exorbitant fees to get an endangered animal carefully lured to your position so you can feel like a badass by killing it at close range. That sometimes there’s no reason for a killing but the act of killing.

That’s a horrible thing to have to admit about the world. We try not to, if it’s avoidable. We instantly leap to the old cliché “There’s two sides to every story” even when there really aren’t; we decide that because a human being could possibly have done something to invite their own death or deserve their own death, they must have.

It’s, perversely, easier to rationalize killing a person because people have agency. It’s easier for us to conclude that people being killed by violence--or allowed to die by starvation and neglect--is “all part of the plan.”

Hence the insistence that there can’t be a racist pattern of black Americans being gunned down by police for no reason--the media scrambles to invent a reason, to find a way to say there’s “two sides to this story.” The dead teenager “was no angel.” The killer cop “feared for his life.” We “may never know what happened,” and that uncertainty justifies our inaction--if there’s a possibility the killing was justified, why rock the boat? Why second-guess the authorities? Why not just go about business as usual?

Probably the best thing that’s come out of the Cecil the Lion spectacle is people trying out the “no angel” and “feared for his life” excuse on Cecil--or the smugly dismissive “If you choose not to comply you invite your own death” response--and hearing how ridiculous it sounds.

The paradoxical thing is that compared to lions and robots, we pay black people a backhanded compliment--the worst kind of backhanded compliment, the one made up to justify killing you. We ascribe to black victims of police violence not just agency but hyperagency, to the point of superpowers.

Cecil the Lion was unquestionably bigger and stronger than Mike Brown, and yet Mike Brown’s goliath-like size and strength--his magical ability to “bulk up to get through the bullets”--gets cited as a reason he was somehow at an advantage against Officer Darren Wilson, who was a mere human being armed with a deadly firearm. You wouldn’t float the theory that the code that made hitchBOT tweet its location and play recorded messages somehow malfunctioned in such a precise way that the machine flung itself to the pavement and damaged itself beyond repair. But we are expected to believe that a handcuffed Freddie Gray somehow spontaneously developed the idea to throw himself deliberately against the wall of a police van in order to break his own neck.

The mantra used by right-wing pundits who want to dismiss an atrocity as unimportant is always the same: “Personal responsibility.” We get to watch marginalized people’s blood run down the streets and justify it with that phrase, “personal responsibility,” even for things no one could possibly be responsible for. It was Sandra Bland’s fault for mouthing off. It was Tamir Rice’s fault for having a toy gun. It was Mike Brown’s fault for being big and strong.

That’s the nice thing about being a lion. People care when you die, because no one tries to make it your own fault that you died. Because killing lions is rare, and the people who kill lions therefore don’t have a socially sanctioned explanation for why killing lions is necessary in the course of daily living. The act of lion-killing is easy for us to condemn as simply evil.

But black people are killed all the time, and killed by people who, far from being eccentric thrill-seekers paying for the privilege to do so, get paid by taxpayers to do so as a public service. You can’t write off systemic violence against black citizens as being the fault of a few bad apples--every “bad apple” we’ve seen is someone the system has protected and defended, saying that we have no choice but to sometimes gun down black teenagers and children in order to maintain law and order.

To condemn that evil as the same kind of evil that killed Cecil is to admit that brutal, callous cruelty isn’t just something that happens once in a while in our society but that it’s something baked into who we are as a people, into the structure of our society and our laws. It turns out many of us, maybe most of us, will never admit that.

Just like we decide that women must be lying or “asking for it” en masse because that’s easier than admitting that sexual violence is common. We dismiss accusations of rape or sexual assault by saying the attacker wouldn’t “need” to commit violence to “get” sex. Because we can’t admit that the same childish, pointless, free-floating evil that breaks things for the fun of breaking them also hurts people for the sake of hurting them.

I know exactly why it’s so easy for people like me to get mad about “fluffy” stories like hitchBOT or Cecil. Because those stories reveal the sheer depravity and cruelty of human nature, but they reveal it manifesting in aberrant individuals whom we can all safely hate together without indicting ourselves. It’s the ultimate in safe thrills, being able to summon up righteous indignation without ever having to “take sides” against anyone.

But standing up for victims of sexual assault? For victims of police violence? For anything that gets classified as a “social issue”? That requires acknowledging that it’s not just random villainous criminals who are evil. That something can be “normal”--the normal way policing works, the normal way capitalism works, the normal way hookup culture works--and still be unconscionably, unforgivably evil. That evil is something we’re complicit in every day.

We don’t really suffer from an outrage surplus. We suffer from an outrage deficit. We save all our outrage for random dentists from Minnesota whom we can run out of town on a rail because that’s so much easier than being outraged at an entire social system, outraged enough to “take sides” against people you love and respect, outraged knowing your outrage will never be satisfied within your lifetime because these things don’t change enough to be solved within one human lifetime.

I’m not queasy about my own strong feelings about Cecil because I don’t think people are capable of being outraged about two things at once. Two isn’t a challenging number of simultaneous outrage targets at all.

But I worry that really understanding why Cecil’s death is fucked up--understanding the basic human evil behind it, the callous selfish cruelty behind it--would lead to seeing that same evil at work everywhere else in the world, all the time. It would mean being outraged by hundreds of things at once, thousands, millions. It would mean actually seeing this world we’ve built for what it is.

And I don’t know if I’m capable of that.

By Arthur Chu

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

#blacklivesmatter Cecil The Lion Ferguson Freddie Gray Mike Brown Sandra Bland Tamir Rice