Over the last few weeks, media outlets have been inundating us with stories of outrage in relation to the death of Cecil the Lion. Via Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, people have been reiterating upset over the loss of the lion now known famously for being at the forefront of an Oxford University study. It’s not just everyday people lending their voices to this debacle either; celebrities such as Jimmy Kimmel and Ricky Gervais have also played a helping hand in generating media attention around not only the death of Cecil but recreational game hunting itself.
The actual kill took place over a month ago, when a dentist from the United States visited Zimbabwe with the presumed intent of hunting a lion. But it wasn’t until it was discovered that his trophy kill was part of the Oxford study that outrage against the arguably unnecessary act began to surface. In response to the news coverage and social media banter, airlines have pledged to ban the transport of trophy kills, a series of online awareness campaigns and petitions have begun to circulate and images of endangered species – including Cecil – have been displayed on buildings in some of the largest cities around the world. I’m not saying that this outrage and media attention isn’t warranted, but perhaps it’s a bit disproportionate.
Research surrounding why humans care about a given topic or situation is vast and must be considered case-by-case. Typically, we are motivated by sentiments of empathy, pity and guilt. When thinking about the many disasters that happen at any given moment around the world, we can easily recognize those responses within ourselves upon hearing about them. And they don’t have to be in far-off distant lands – the same motives influence how we react to situations that inflict our own country, community or family. We empathize with the family that just lost their house to a fire, or when we learn of a friend or neighbor’s loved one passing. We pity the homeless we so nonchalantly pass by in the same way that we pity those whose images are used in aid donor anti-poverty campaigns. We feel guilty about not ‘doing more’. Yet, at the end of the day we consider most of these situations to be inevitable and turn a blind eye, or think about them for a moment then move on to the next thing that catches our attention.
The real kicker is, these blatant misappropriations of concern – be they intentional or unintentional – are very much the result of an internal mechanism that allows us to cope with the unsettling realities found within the world we live. We are not meant to be exposed to so much suffering. So, as a means of handling the overwhelming number of instances of distant suffering, we focus our energy on one or two causes at a time.
The good news about stories like Cecil’s, is that they tend to open up a dialogue that gets us thinking. When news of his death broke, the need for more stringent animal rights legislation was reignited, as was the grim reality of famine taking place in much of sub-Saharan Africa. These are important conversations that we should be having. The bad news is that, more often than not, a little online chatter is all these situations ever amount to. But why has Cecil’s death been more effective at producing such outrage than those of the millions of humans who die every day?
For starters, the constant information sharing we – particularly those of us who find ourselves living in the so-called Western world – engage in can lead to compassion overload. We’re exposed to a high level of coverage of events that don’t make us feel very good about ourselves. Seriously, look at the news! Right now you’ll get stories on refugees from North Africa and Syria. You’ll be exposed to the current racial debates within the United States, which stem from a series of police shootings and controversy over the continued use of the Confederate flag. Not to mention the endless stories about ISIS and the ever-present war-on-terrorism. It is difficult to keep up with everything we’re being exposed to, but it’s even more difficult to continue to care, especially if we are not living these realities ourselves. Because of the overwhelming amount of negative news coverage, we have trained ourselves to shut off when a story ‘drags on’ for too long. So when an unusual situation comes along like a lion being killed for kicks, it captures our attention.
It helps, also, that Cecil was a single target. We understand this better. We can act upon the upset that is derived from a single event, that creates a single victim. We have one subject to focus our attention on. This is the paradox of giving a shit in today’s world: the case of the identifiable victim versus the case of the faceless statistical life. Seeing a single victim makes it more difficult for us to look away. We have a single face, a single image of an event. This makes it personal for us. Statistics overwhelm us, because there are too many victims to recognize. We don’t necessarily identify with any of them, because they are many, and they are essentially nameless. Thus, we can change the channel, turn the page, look away.
Also, Cecil represents a voiceless group. In the same way that we tend to care more about events that have a higher proportion of victims that are women and/or children, we empathize, pity and feel guilty about non-human victims. To put it bluntly, a lion is cute; masses of dying children are not. The same could be argued for the masses of ‘uncuddly’ species being killed off as a result of global warming, which we humans certainly play a role in. Species we perceive to be cute – like polar bears, pandas and elephants – get more of our attention than those we do not. Like bees and snakes.
We cannot care about every single cause in need of our attention. We are predisposed as a species to shut out what we do not understand or what we are unable to grasp. Does this make it okay? Not really. But is it acceptable to banter on about a contemporary happenstance just because it’s fashionable? I am outraged – as I believe we should be – about the needless death of Cecil the Lion. But I am also outraged about the apathetic approach we often take on equally important issues, such as the ever-growing incidence of poverty, the increasingly dismal state of our environment and the continuous emphasis on the ownership of stuff! The fate of Cecil deserves our outrage – but only as part of a much bigger conversation. Not just for animal welfare, but improving the welfare of all living things in general.
Emily Kennedy is a writer from Nova Scotia, Canada. She is currently completing a MA in Poverty, Conflict and Reconstruction at the University of Manchester. Read more by Emily at The Orange Canadian.