Cecil the Lion and the 3 Pitfalls of Outrage Politics

by Benjamin Studebaker

The viral story of the week is the tragic shooting of Cecil the Lion. Cecil was a famous lion that was tracked by researchers from the University of Oxford. The shooting has many people outraged at the hunter–American dentist Walter Palmer. Palmer is receiving an immense amount of abuse on the internet, and some are even calling for Palmer to be hurt. It is and should be a crime to kill research animals and it is and should be a crime to lure protected species out of their protected areas for the purpose of killing them. Nonetheless, the reaction and the reactions to the reaction are leaving me a bit uneasy. Outrage politics is ugly politics. When we are motivated by rage and righteous indignation, we rarely show thoughtfulness or empathy. Let me show you what I mean.

There are three key ways that outrage is ugly:

  1. Tunnel Vision
  2. Lynch Mobs
  3. Outrage Olympics

Let’s take each in turn.

Tunnel Vision

People are not outraged about the Cecil killing just because Cecil was in a protected area or because Cecil was part of Oxford research. They are outraged that any person would choose to kill any lion in any situation for any reason (aside from, perhaps, self-defense). I share the sense of profound incredulity–lions are amazing creatures. Why would someone want to kill one? But in our rush to condemn big game hunting, we fall victim to tunnel vision.

You could argue that big game hunting does some good things for Africa. There are many lions in Zimbabwe that are bred in captivity specifically for the purpose of hunting. Southern Africa has about 6,000 of these captive lions. Each year in Zimbabwe, 900 captive lions are killed by big game hunters. Those that are not hunted are kept to encourage tourism or sold to foreign countries. By making captive lions available to big game hunters, Zimbabwe may be able to discourage awful poaching episodes like the one that felled Cecil.

Big game hunting also makes very large amounts of money and creates a large number of jobs in desperately poor countries where people’s living standards are very low. In South Africa alone, big game hunting sustains 70,000 jobs and makes the country $744 million a year.

Now, I’m not saying that this means big game hunting is necessarily a net good or that we should permit it. There are other counterarguments you could give–you could point out that in many of these countries much of the money raised may be lost to corrupt governmental officials. You could claim that allowing people to hunt captive lions perpetuates hunting culture and may lead more people to become illegal hunters. You could claim that even if there are gains, they are not large enough to justify the number of lions killed. I’m not here to pronounce a judgment one way or the other.

The point is that so many of us are too outraged to discuss this. We are so disgusted with Palmer and with big game hunters that we cannot take a wider perspective or have an objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of permitting limited big game hunting. In theory, if big game hunting raised a large enough amount of money for people living in desperately poor countries, it would save many lives and lift many people out of poverty. How many lives would need to be saved or improved to justify big game hunting? There’s surely a number. I have no idea if in reality big game hunting comes anywhere close to hitting that number, but we should be able to discuss it.

Many of us can’t discuss it because we are too outraged. Indeed, some of us are so outraged that the very notion that we should engage in a detached objective analysis will itself strike us as outrageous. This is what tunnel vision looks like–an inability to consider any other factors aside from the singular outraging feature of the incident or policy. In this case, that feature is the fact that lions are being killed for sport. This is assuredly very important, but it does not necessarily trump all other considerations that we might have. People cannot see that because outrage is not a reasonable position but is instead an emotional reaction, a fight or flight response.

Lynch Mobs

One of the best things about left wing people is their ability to recognize that poor, oppressed, and downtrodden people are not to blame for their circumstances. When someone is poor or commits crimes, many on the right immediately engages in blame, abuse, and bullying. They accuse poor people of being lazy, of being benefits scroungers, of lacking in the relevant virtues. They accuse criminals of being horrible people deserving of severe punishment. The left takes a deeper view. Left wingers point out that many people become poor, stay poor, or commit crimes because of collective social failings. We as a society educate them inadequately, or fail to protect them from abusive or inadequate parents, or fail to extend to them a sufficiently large number of opportunities. In other cases, people end up poor or miserable because of mental illness, learning disabilities, or other difficulties. The left recognizes that these people are not to blame for what they are. Because of this, the left is able to show much greater empathy and compassion.

But when the misbehaving person is a racist, a sexist, a big game hunter, or a right winger, the left throws all of that out the window. Instead of trying to understand how it is that people learn to be racist, sexist, hunters, or right wing, the left immediately engages in blame, abuse, and bullying. There are immediate calls for the offender to be driven out of public life. People heap vitriol and abuse on these people. Walter Palmer’s Yelp page is inundated with reviews that have nothing to do with his dentistry skills. Here are some of the cruel, merciless things people are saying:

If Dr. Palmer is so keen on hunting lions, then how about we let a lion hunt Dr. Palmer?

Here’s putting it out there that your practice crumbles, and that you go bankrupt.

Praying an angry mob finds this cowardly sissy and drags his sorry ass out into the streets where “nature” can really take its course.

This sociopathic killer deserves ALL the bad things that are coming his way!

Teach this guy a lesson and let him lose his job and no longer make the living he was making.

Dr. Palmer is a disgusting waste of DNA.

What a pathetic, disgraceful, worthless human being. You are such a waste. Hope your family is tormented by the shame and embarrassment of your callous, heartless actions. It’s only fair that you get hunted by lions and torn limb from limb.

One of the central achievements of the left is the recognition that negative behaviors and beliefs are socially learned, that individuals should not be blamed or shamed. Yet here we have a large number of people blaming and shaming Palmer, wishing ill not merely on him but on his family. If these people stopped to think for a moment, they’d realize that their own political and philosophical beliefs do not support this. People don’t choose to become the sort of people who hunt, are racist, or sexist, or right wing anymore than they choose to become poor or to become criminals. Social forces shape us into what we are. This is true not merely of the weak and the poor, but of the strong and the rich. We need to figure out ways to change the balance of social forces that produce people who behave badly. We should not engage in mass bullying. When we do, we behave in the ways we despise.

But when people are outraged, they forget the well-considered moral beliefs they might otherwise have and respond with their basest instincts, calling for retribution rather than rehabilitation. To paraphrase Gandhi, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes the whole world blind and toothless. No one deserves to suffer for its own sake, not even those who commit the most repugnant deeds.

Outrage Olympics

Outrage politics swiftly descend into a repugnant game of one-upmanship. When a new outrageous incident emerges, the outraged people inundate social media with their vitriol, displaying tunnel vision and abusive bullying. But those who are not outraged by this specific incident respond not by pointing out that outrage is damaging and unconstructive, but by claiming to be outraged by “better” or “more important” things. Here are a few examples. Some people were outraged that people were outraged about Cecil rather than abortion:

Others were outraged that people were outraged about Cecil rather than African-Americans who have been killed:

There are many other cases of this kind. Each time, the poster wants to remind everyone that he or she is a much better person than they are because the poster cares about the things that really matter. These people fail to recognize that unless they have very large audiences, their Facebook status or tweet about Syria, abortion, or racism is not a robust or effective form of political action and does not in any way make them better than the people who post selfies or tweet about Game of Thrones, let alone those who care deeply about animals.

You might also notice that these folks never post memes scolding people for failing to talk about cancer (kills 8 million people per year), heart disease and stroke (14.1 million), malaria (1 million), or AIDS (1.7 million). You won’t see them post many memes about climate change (which will kill untold millions) or even poverty and inequality (which already do kill untold millions).

Why? These things are not outrageous or even compelling to them because there is no individual or discrete group of individuals to blame or shame. For most people, moral and political issues are only really interesting if there’s someone they can bully or villainize. Outrage doesn’t make the world a better place, it provides affluent first world people with entertainment. It supplies TV stations with viewers and websites with hits. People talk about what they talk about because it’s what they find interesting, compelling, entertaining, or emotionally moving. They don’t really care about the chronic, long-term problems that cause the vast majority of the suffering in the world. Chronic problems are boring and it’s too hard to find someone to blame. Whatever issue they feel outraged about is the most important issue, and anyone who is outraged about anything else or fails to be outraged about what they’re outraged about is outrageous.

Instead of showing outrage, why don’t we try showing concern instead? Let’s try to keep our cool and calmly consider all the relevant arguments and sides to political issues. Let’s try to remember that beliefs and behaviors are socially learned, and show compassion even to those who do and say the things we find deeply repellent. Instead of competing with our Facebook friends to see who is outraged the most about the right things, let’s try to focus on solving the problems we purport to care so much about by constructively supporting positive policy changes. We won’t always succeed. We’re only human. But let’s try.

The best people are not the people who get outraged the most about the right things. They’re the people who know the difference between outrage and concern and have the ability to consistently embrace the latter everyday.