What Cecil says about us

The tragic death of Cecil the Lion has been making headlines around the world this week, writing for us, Zimbabwean born, Kate Nicholl argues that the event tells us a lot about how modern society reacts to tragedy 

If social media has taught us anything in the past few days it’s that Trophy hunting is awful, paying $50,000 to shoot an animal is obscene and Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed a Zimbabwean lion called Cecil is the worst person alive. I agree with the first two points, the $50,000 price tag is particularly galling, especially in a country where the average wage is $253 a month (and we’re just talking about the 30 per cent of the population who are actually employed).  But rather than wondering how we put an end to trophy hunting (we should by the way) or what sort of person would even want to kill a lion never mind pay to do it? I was surprised that what I found most compelling about the Cecil story is what we were saying about it on social media, and what that says about us.

Firstly, the overwhelming level of compassion intrigued me. Whether it’s famine in South Sudan or images of ISIS’ continued campaign of unimaginable violence – a day doesn’t pass without some news of human tragedy. Right now I keep thinking about the thousands (or “swarm” to quote our ever tactful Prime Minister) of migrants who have been desperately risking everything in search of a better life. We know that those attempting to reach the UK from Calais this week are largely from war torn countries or dictatorships. We know that nine of these people were killed trying to cross the Channel in the past month.

In the past two days my social media news feeds have been dominated by posts of outrage and sympathy, not over a particular humanitarian disaster, but for Cecil a 13 year old lion.  While undeniably awful, it’s important to remember that Zimbabwe, under the dysfunctional leadership of President Robert Mugabe (who incidentally makes Stormont look like a stellar model of democracy and decency) actually has much bigger problems. These have been largely ignored by the world’s media and will continue to be ignored after this story dies. My not very satisfying but most plausible conclusion is that perhaps it’s just easier to care about dead lions than dead people?

Equally fascinating has been the public reaction to Walter Palmer. I recently read Jon Ronson’s book ‘So you’ve been publically shamed’ which looks at lives which are ruined by disproportionate social media shamings. (Read it if you haven’t -you can borrow my copy). While Walter Palmer undoubtedly did something highly objectionable, and so in my mind doesn’t fit into the category of innocent victim who has been wronged, I’m still deeply uncomfortable with the public reaction. Social media gives us an almost vigilante power which we seem to wield unwittingly, judging and sealing the fate of unknown individuals. You could argue that the dentist deserves to be shamed but is the level of response to his actions warranted? He wasn’t the first to have paid to go hunting in Africa. True, this was allegedly illegal and no doubt the courts will deal with that – but what about his family who have protestors stationed outside their house, do they deserve this? What about the people who work in his clinic who have lost their jobs

Jon Ronson tweeted;

This is a horribly polarizing time we’re living through, where reason is getting trampled.

I think he may be right.

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  • Reader

    The Cecil story has something for everyone – conspicuous consumption, killing for sport, poaching from a game reserve, corruption, a named victim and a lingering death.
    People who could tick a few of the boxes themselves can still look down on a case where all 6 boxes are ticked.
    There’s a formula for working out the intelligence of a mob, isn’t there? Modern social media allows the formation of the ultimate mob.

  • Jag

    I personally would like to pay tribute to Mabel the moo cow whose flesh made for a very tasty burger yesterday and to her sibling Helen the heifer who has kindly donated her skin just so that I can wear these nice monk shoes, and to Babe the pig whose flesh, when combined with an assortment of spices and peppers ended up as a chorizo which will be an ingredient in tonight’s puttanesca pasta. And lastly, to Cedric the Alaskan salmon who will be the centerpiece of this Sunday’s dinner. Sorry, I didn’t catch the names of the people who were paid to kill and process them all.

  • Jag

    “a named victim”?

    I don’t know which part of that is most bizarre, the “named” or the “victim”.

  • murdockp

    Robert Mugabe undertakes ethnic cleansing result = VIP ticket for John Paul the seconds funeral at the Vatican and global indifference to the deaths.

    Cecil the lion gets killed – global outrage and protests.

    What does that say about us.

  • npbinni

    The reaction to Cecil’s death is nothing less than mob rule: mindless morons baying for vengeance and blood.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    The mob mentality captured in 140 characters. God help us!

  • Tochais Siorai

    It’s a hypocritical public reaction alright but to be honest, bring it on. Canned trophy hunting is a particularly nasty obscenity (even worse are the pretend trophy hunters who are really after animal parts e.g rhino horn to illegally sell on).
    If the public shaming of an individual slows it down it’s good news. It’s only the tip of the iceberg but it might a shine a small light on far worse goings on with regard to endangered species.

  • Granni Trixie

    Animals and their issues don’t interest me – but I trust I wouldn’t be cruel to them.
    I could not but observe during the troubles however that self proclaimed ‘cat lovers’ of my acquaintance often would not lift a finger to get involved in resistance to violence or sectarianism. So should I be asked for money by someone rattling a tin for animal charities I usually smile and say “sorry,I’m into people”.
    I have been shocked however that the din for an animal called Cecil is drowning out voices calling for compassion for migrants. Thanks for bringing this to our attention,Kate.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Why should we be concerned with bad things happening to animals when bad things happen to humans?
    Why should we be concerned with sectarianism here when sectarianism in Iraq is much worse?
    Why should we be concerned with poverty here when people are starving elsewhere?
    You may see where I’m going here……

  • the rich get richer

    So a supposedly well educated and financially well off man has the choice of photographing an Impressive animal or shooting with a high tech bow and arrow an impressive animal and he choose to kill the impressive animal.

    Really ! You can only feel sorry for such a moron.

  • Turgon

    Many years ago I wrote a few articles on Zimbabwe. It is ironic that the lion was called Cecil: Cecil Rhodes being the founder / conqueror / invader of the country though to those my age and older it once had another name: Rhodesia.

    Jag’s comment is very apposite and can I complement him on his monk shoes: I always wear them if away from home with work as they fit with both a suit and jeans though I fancy a new pair (enough of the sartorial guide).

    It is reasonable to laugh a bit at those who focus on Cecil and ignore Mugabe’s pretty revolting regime.

    Also, however, the “hunter” is a pretty revolting individual.

    Many will focus on his decision to shoot this beast with a bow and arrow like some sort of stone age savage. That said hunting has a tradition which although I may not like is held in high esteem by others.

    More revolting is the fact that a wealthy westerner seems to feel that somehow he can ignore the law in a poor country. Had he broken hunting laws in the USA he would likely have been prosecuted. There seems, however, a tendency for rich westerners to feel that somehow developing world countries laws do not apply to them: be it in Zimbabwe over killing animals or much, much more revoltingly with the likes of Paul Gadd (Gary Glitter) abusing children in Vietnam.

    Although there is hypocrisy all round on this issue: For his arrogance and contempt of another country’s laws I have no sympathy for this dentist and his current plight. If he spent a few months or years in a Zimbabwian gaol I would have difficultly getting overly exercised about his plight either. I doubt he got overly exercised about the poor people incarcerated in his countries gaols.

  • John Collins

    The Kincora scandal was brought yup on a thread and almost nobody seemed to have a view on it. I read somewhere that for every two pregnancies started in Germany, one ends in abortion. As Ruth Dudley Edwards said at least Cecil was coming to the end of his days anyway, being thirteen years old. I would object to using an arrow on him alright, otherwise as a meat eater I would be a hypocrite to condemn his assassin

  • Granni Trixie

    Yea,I get it. I should have made my point differently – I meant to question (as it really is a puzzle to me) why some people in context of NI get it stirred up by cruelty to animals but not to their fellow man or woman. Put it another way why dies Amnesty do great work on all sorts of human rights issues today yet opted out of issues such as punishment beatings,exiles etc during the troubles. Mystery to me.

  • Tochais Siorai

    So the dentist chappie was feeling a bit peckish, didn’t have any money for a burger so killed the lion for food?