On the Death of Cecil the Animal

I bet that title has already upset some people. You deserve it. “You’ve demeaned him!” No, I haven’t. My intention was to demean you, if you’re the sort who gets ragey about this. It’s time for a talk about Internet mobs.

Think for a moment about the number of gazelles whose lives have been saved by the extermination of Cecil. Do you think Cecil’s life was inherently more valuable than theirs? Hmm, I wonder why. Could it be that all the hysteria over Cecil is really just deceitful posturing?

This isn’t to advocate hunting lions. I don’t. But the hysteria is worse. Internet mobs are worse. They’re a poisonous stand-in for morality — that is, for making good choices. People join them thinking that howling along with the mob is an easy substitute for the good choices they haven’t made. It isn’t. It’s just another terrible choice, and the fact that we’re seeing so much of it is profoundly troubling.

I’m not here today to tell you what morality is, or what the right choices are. What I’m telling you is that these things require thought. And since nobody is noticing, it needs to be said explicitly: thinking and mob behavior are opposites.

When I was in grade school in Illinois, there was an unlucky boy named Jamie Phillips who got picked on a lot. One day, somebody went too far. Jamie brought a Slinky to school, and another boy broke it. His name was Chris. Normally, nobody would have cared. But on that day, somebody came to Jamie’s defense, and something unexpected happened. Suddenly every child was outraged. It spread like … well, like an Internet fury. Kids who never gave a damn about Jamie, kids who had picked on him mercilessly, side-by-side with Chris, were suddenly outraged.

(Please note: I’m not talking in the third person to pretend I’m better than the rest of the kids. Jamie wasn’t in my section and I didn’t know him, so I never picked on him. Would I have, if I had been there? I’d like to think not, but I was a normal kid, so who knows? But I was at least aware enough to be troubled by the cruelty that I saw, and also enough to realize there was something very wrong about the playground reaction on that day. And I can honestly say that within a couple of years after this happened, I was actively defending kids that got picked on.)

Chris must have been terrified. But a part of him also must have been saying, “Come on, I only did what the rest of you do all the time!” What Chris didn’t realize was that that was exactly the point. That was exactly why they all turned against him. He was their sacrificial animal, bearing the burden of all their sins.

And Jamie, on whose behalf everyone rallied? Nobody was paying any attention to him. Nobody was comforting him. The next day, they went back to picking on him.

That’s the key to the whole Internet mob mentality. The people who get into the mob aren’t good people. They’re guilty people seeking moral shelter. They’ve been doing wrong, making bad choices, and knowing it. That’s why, when they see a mob professing outrage, they can’t wait to join it. They can’t wait to be a part of the group that has the moral high ground, to feel vicariously wronged over something. When they get to scream against whatever has been proclaimed “wrong” on Mob Day, they get to ignore the guilt and dread and moral uncertainty they carry around all the time. They get to believe they’re safe from judgment. To a habitually guilty person, that is a powerful drug, and under its influence, atrocities are committed. No one is easier to manipulate than the guilty.

Mobs aren’t about justice. They’re about granting their participants absolution. Or rather, they hand out funny money that stands in for it for a short while. The kids in my school got to spend a day feeling like they were civil and humane, despite the inhumanity they routinely showed to Jamie. But they weren’t. And the people vomiting rage over Cecil aren’t, either.

Cecil the lion? Just an animal.

The guy who killed him? Just a dentist.

Steve Bartman? Just a Cubs fan.

You, the mob participant? Just dangerous.

If you’ve been howling for that dentist’s blood, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. Because I don’t believe for a moment that you’re motivated by a principled, abiding compassion for the welfare of animals. If you were, you’d also weep for the gazelles and zebras that lions kill. They die far worse deaths than Cecil did, and their offspring are just as bereaved and vulnerable.

Showing off your outrage about Cecil doesn’t make you a good person. It makes you a willing participant in mob mentality. It won’t take long before you realize you’re still just as guilty and furtive as before. Maybe more so, if you’re still human enough to be aware of the humanity you’ve surrendered to join the frenzy.

Showing off your outrage over that woman who made an un-PC tweet about AIDS in Africa, and getting her fired from her job, didn’t make you a good person. It made you a willing participant in mob mentality.

Showing off your hatred of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist didn’t make you a good person. It made you a willing participant in mob mentality. The gays who held up a sign expressing condolences to his family after he died had it right. You had it wrong.

No amount of public posturing over the Outrage of the Week will ever take the place of the good choices you haven’t made. And no amount of it can ever change anything that’s wrong with the world, in the way that making good choices in your own private life is guaranteed to do.

But that takes careful thought. It takes sober reflection. I hope you’ve still got the capacity for it.

2 thoughts on “On the Death of Cecil the Animal

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