Now is the point in the story of Cecil the lion—amid non-stop news coverage and passionate social-media advocacy—when people get tired of hearing about Cecil the lion. Even if they hesitate to say it.
But Cecil fatigue is only going to get worse. On Friday morning, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, called for the extradition of the man who killed him, the Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Muchinguri would like Palmer to be “held accountable for his illegal action”—paying a reported $50,000 to kill Cecil with an arrow after luring him away from protected land. And she’s far from alone in demanding accountability. This week, the Internet has served as a bastion of judgment and vigilante justice—just like usual, except that this was a perfect storm directed at a single person. It might be called an outrage singularity.
Palmer didn’t just kill a lion. He killed an especially good-looking and “beloved” lion in an ostentatious and gruesome fashion that culminated in decapitation. To make things worse, that lion had a human name. To make things worse still, that name was Cecil.
It’s hard to think of a more innocent name than Cecil. Had the lion’s name been Satan or Derek, the international firestorm might have been attenuated. Had Palmer not had a past that included sexual harassment complaints and pleading guilty to lying to federal wildlife officials about killing a black bear, he might have been less hateable. He also might have been less hateable had he been a humble cobbler, or literally anything other than a wealthy dentist. But every element of this story fell into place in a way that sparked international outrage beyond any outrage storm this year.
“Is it that difficult for you to get an erection that you need to kill things?” Jimmy Kimmel chided Palmer, in a rant-turned-tearful-plea to viewers to donate money to lion-tracking research. The segment got more than 6.5 million views on YouTube in two days. Palmer’s professional credibility was destroyed by a flood of Yelp reviews that gave him one star on grounds that he is a murderer, from people who know nothing of his root-canal skills. “You kill a protected lion, we kill your shitty business :),” read one.
The dentist closed his practice and went into hiding. Many people called for his death, including the advocacy group PETA, specifically by way of hanging. CNN asked, “Where is Walter Palmer?” as if people needed to find him (and maybe bring him to justice, as many already believed they were.)
The Internet has served to facilitate outrage, as the Internet does: the hotter the better. And because the case is so visceral and bipartisan in its opposition to Palmer’s act, few people stepped in to suggest that the fury, the people tweeting his home address, might be too much. That argument wins no outrage points.
Instead, the people who hadn't jumped on the Cecil-outrage bandwagon jumped on the superiority-outrage bandwagon. It’s a bandwagon of outrage one-upmanship, and it’s just as rewarding as the original outrage bandwagon. Anyone can play, like this:
It’s fine to be outraged about one lion, but what about all of the other lions who are hunted and killed every year? There are 250 Cecils killed annually across Africa as trophies, and that’s what you should really be outraged by. But good job caring now.
Actually, what about all of the animals? All of the cattle and fish and brilliant pigs who are systematically slaughtered for human consumption every day? Were you eating a hot dog when you posted that thing about Cecil on Facebook? Anyone who is not vegan is no better than the dentist Walter Palmer. That is what you really should be outraged by.
Actually, you only care about Zimbabwe when a lion is killed? Great of you. Killing animals is part of the circle of life, but you know what’s not? Human trafficking. People are bought and sold as slaves today all over the world. Why are you talking about one aged jungle cat in a place where the relationship between impoverished pastoralist communities and wealthy foreign tourists is more complicated than you actually understand?
And I’m glad you’re so concerned about human trafficking, but there will be no humans at all if we don’t do something about climate change. Reliance on fossil fuels and industrialized farming is the real problem, and that's what you should be outraged by. You don’t know what to care about. I know what to care about.
The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground. Even when a dentist kills an adorable lion, and everyone is upset about it, there’s better outrage ground to be won. The most widely accepted hierarchy of outrage seems to be: Single animal injured < single animal killed < multiple animals killed < systematic killing of animals < systematic oppression/torture of people < systematic killing of humans < end of all life due to uninhabitable planet.
To say that there’s a more important issue in the world is always true, except in the case of climate change ending all life, both human and animal. So it’s meaningless, even if it’s fun, to go around one-upping people’s outrage. Try it. Someone will express legitimate concern over something, and all you have to do is say there are more important things to be concerned about. All you have to do is use the phrase “spare me” and then say something about global warming. You can literally write, “My outrage is more legit than your outrage! Ahhh!”
Don’t worry about that feeling a little too on-the-nose, because it doesn’t matter, because no one will remember it. Next month the armchair lions-rights activists won’t care about lions anymore, because lions-rights outrage will not be trending. They will be on to some new outrage. Many people are drawn to defend nature and underdogs (even when they are apex predators) and to hate wealthy, lying, violent dentists. But even more than that they are drawn to feeling superior and appearing wise, and being validated accordingly.