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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