Five Thoughts on Cecil the Lion—Or: How the Internet Really Botched This One

Five Thoughts on Cecil the Lion—Or: How the Internet Really Botched This One

by Okla Elliott

 

I had initially decided to ignore all of the Cecil the Lion outrage and counter-outrage, thinking it one more oddity of the internet, but as the debate continues on, I feel compelled to offer a few thoughts on the matter. Thoughts 1 & 2 below basically sum up what I see as the salient factors of the initial internet outrage over Cecil’s death and the internet backlash to that outrage. More importantly, to my mind anyway, are thoughts 3, 4, & 5, which I hope offer ways we might have a more productive conversation and move forward beyond reductive memes, Twitter quips, and zero-sum/binary thinking.

1) How often do humans have empathy for animals? Very rarely, so I suggest we applaud this instance of trans-species empathy. That being said, I often imagine a majority of the people expressing outrage over this one senseless act of killing which led to great suffering in an animal were eating a cheeseburger while posting their outrage. I am glad we are seeing empathy toward an animal, but now we have to train ourselves to feel that same empathy and outrage for the hundreds and hundreds of millions of animals we consume every year after offering them nothing but a torturous existence before their slaughter. And here I am optimistic, because a recent statistic shows Americans are slaughtering tens of millions fewer animals a year for their sustenance. May we continue this trend.

[Side note: I discuss part of why we feel more empathy toward Cecil the Lion than other animals in thought #3.]

2) I want to discuss the outright empirical inaccuracy of the claims going around the internet that people are showing outrage over Cecil the Lion’s unnecessary and excruciating death yet are ignoring other ethical issues. Take the popular meme suggesting that no one showed any concern for the Iraq War or the war on drugs. It would require about a minute of honest research to know this is just factually inaccurate. Tens of millions of people protested the Iraq War, and many people have been criticizing the war on drugs for decades now, including but not limited to presidential candidates in both major political parties, thousands of lawyers, many celebrities, and millions of concerned citizens.

But the real issue here isn’t that all of the quips, memes, op-ed pieces, and meta-moral outrage are empirically inaccurate (though they are), but rather that ethics is not a zero-sum game. I bet you a hundred bucks that 90% or more of the people who have posted about the murder of this lion have, at some point, also posted about racism, sexism, wealth inequality, the environment, etc. – and I bet you another hundred bucks that they’ve posted more about these things throughout their time on social media they have about than the death of one lion.

It is entirely possible to have multiple political convictions and to be an activist for more than one issue. We have got to jettison this zero-sum thinking from our ethics and politics if we’re going to solve more than one problem at a time.

In short, the issues you think are important are still getting millions of posts and certainly have and will continue to receive more attention than one lion’s horrific death. In particular, some have suggested that people have cared more about this one lion’s death than the murder of black Americans at the hands of the police. Here a simple Google search will suffice. There have been literally over ten thousand times more posts about #BlackLivesMatter than #CeciltheLion. Of course, these posts have not solved the heinous problem of systemic racism in the United States any more than posts about Cecil the Lion have solved all animal rights issues, but if your metric for caring is online posts about a subject, it is clear that many more people care about the rampant racism in this country than Cecil the Lion—which is exactly as it should be, since it affects millions of sentient beings suffering unnecessarily, as opposed to just one lion.

[Side note: I want to be as emphatic as possible here when I say that all of these movements—#YesAllWomen, #BlackLivesMatter, and many others that don’t yet have hashtags but have many supporters—are absolutely important and even necessary if we are going to move our culture toward a more empathetic and therefore just society. I am merely criticizing the idea that posting about one might diminish someone’s support for another.]

3) There are of course entirely different angles of inquiry that are being flooded over by all this outrage and counter-outrage. One such angle is the way aesthetics shapes our ethics. Lions—especially healthy, robust ones—fit most people’s definitions of “beautiful” or “majestic,” whereas an emaciated, disease-ridden cow would not. We are therefore much more likely to show outrage over the murder of a healthy lion than a sickly cow, precisely because the former meets our aesthetic requirements for beauty. This is a question rarely discussed, but it is equally important when we discuss ethics and the law in the human realm.

What role does aesthetics play in our legal system when we see that a white woman (the standard of Western beauty) is the least likely of all demographics to be convicted of a crime, and when our culture views the violence (sexual or otherwise) toward a white woman a more heinous crime than the violence toward a woman of color or a male of any race? Practically no one discusses the connection between aesthetics and ethics/law, and the current quips on Twitter and the evidence- and logic-poor memes going around the internet are adding nothing to the conversation, simply going back and forth in a zero-sum ethical game that reinforces bad thinking about ethics.

I propose, therefore, a long discussion about how our aesthetics informs our ethics.

[Side note: There are of course other issues at play here. People will also often get more outraged when a member of an endangered species is killed than when another more abundant animal is killed, thus the disparity in public outrage between a rhino (not usually considered beautiful in the classical sense) being poached in Africa and a cute bunny rabbit being killed by a hunter in rural Pennsylvania. We also have to take into account the fact that Cecil had a name, which individualized him for many and thus increased the emotional connection. The aesthetics angle I propose here is by no means the only angle by which we could approach this subject to find a more fruitful conversation, but I think it is one of the most productive since aesthetics plays such a huge role in much of our ethical thought without us realizing it.]

4) Tolstoy once said that the best stories aren’t good versus evil, but rather good versus good, and this is certainly a story of good versus good. Everyone seems to be outraged about legitimate ethical wrongs and want to see these wrongs corrected. I simply argue that the best way to do this is to develop omni-directional empathy, allowing us to empathize with animals not of our species and with members of different demographics and beliefs within our own species. It is not a binary or zero-sum game; every ethical impulse becomes a habit of mind that we must foster to the fullest, aiming toward feeling as much empathy for as many sentient beings as our finite minds can manage.

5) I am a great believer in the powers of the internet to raise awareness for issues and political candidates and literary endeavors, etc., but that is not to suggest that it is without its flaws. One of the biggest ones is that discussion on the internet is often reduced to memes and the sadly reductive space of a Twitter post. We must make use of social media to raise awareness of issues and to promote good ideas and good books and underrepresented thoughts. We must also, however, remain ever-vigilant against the possibility of shrinking the complexities in these arenas. I beg everyone to take a step, or a few steps, back and re-assess everything going on around these series of issues and make more complex analyses thereof. We should also endeavor to take greater action than merely posting online and criticizing the posts that we see online.

SENTIENCE MATTERS: ANIMAL RIGHTS & LITERATURE

 

 

Writing Literature to Benefit Nonhumans

by

Gabriel Gudding

 

This is the first post in a monthly column about animal rights and critical animal studies.

Because I’m a poet and essayist some of my posts will move beyond the strict scope of animal rights philosophy and will concern literature specifically as it relates to nonhumans, veganism, and zoopoetics.

Zoopoetics is a new movement in literary theory and practice that treats nonhumans as individuals with agency, as conscious world-having individuals worthy of moral consideration.[1] Think Kafka, Coetzee, D. H. Lawrence. Think Oni Buchanan and Aracelis Girmay, Les Murray and John Kinsella, Gretchen Primack and Ashley Capps, among countless other innovative writers and editors actively helping to reconceive our relationships with nonhumans.

Zoopoetics is markedly different from ecocriticism, ecopoetics, ecopoetry, and ecological literature in general. Such movements are not concerned with nonhumans as individuals; rather, they are concerned with animals as populations. When they do concern themselves with nonhumans, the essays and anthologies in these genres typically express disquiet about threatened favored populations of animals in the wild — wolves, eagles, bison, monarch butterflies — and rarely if ever mention the plight of farmed animals or question the practice of enslaving, killing and eating the bodies and secretions of nonhumans. The animal in these works is aestheticized and collective. Terry Tempest Williams, for instance, might protest the killing of prairie dogs and owls in the Utah desert, as a part of the general “subjugation of women and nature” in her book Refuge, but think nothing of lauding the hunting of rabbits by her family only a few pages later as a practice integral to her family’s sacred (her word) relationship with nature. Dozens of poets in a collection of essays on ecopoetics will rail against damage to the environment and the loss of connection to the animal world and nature caused by human hubris but never once mention a slaughterhouse, the practice of meat eating, or the fact that animal farming is not only predicated on human supremacism but is also the single greatest driver of climate change and the chief ecological threat to rivers and aquifers worldwide. Forewords, prefaces, and introductions to recent anthologies of ecopoetry and the postmodern pastoral won’t mention the slaughterhouse at all, though the bodies of dead nonhumans are universally eaten and worn, and CAFOs are scattered across countrysides everywhere.[2]

The idea that literature should be written to benefit nonhumans is new. We see no hint of this in western letters prior to now. Book X of The Republic maintains that the only permissible literature is that which praises gods and famous men. Aristotle remarks in Book IV of The Poetics that literature’s purview is the imitation of the actions of men and gods. Sidney’s Defence holds that literature’s purpose is to improve the character of a gentleman. Shelley, Lessing, Schiller all declared that the intent of literature should be to improve humanity. In fact it’s been a broadscale and sustained note since the advent of humanism: the project of literature is humanity’s improvement. Full stop.

Writing literature for the improvement and benefit of nonhumans isn’t some boutique issue, especially when we consider how animal farming is altering our climate and damaging our health and environment. Even for those who cannot intrinsically value nonhumans as ends in themselves, they should recognize that our fate is bound up firmly with their well-being.

A human future that does not acknowledge the injustices done to nonhumans cannot be rosy. Thankfully, a growing body of thinkers, literary and non-literary alike, is increasingly in agreement with political theorist John Sanbonmatsu who writes,

“A Left or socialist politics which does not place our enslavement of other beings at its center, conceptually and politically, cannot possibly succeed: ‘speciesism’ is not merely one more ‘ism,’ but in fact lies at the root of every form of social domination.”

Indeed, Giorgio Agamben goes so far as to insist that the ways we conceive of nonhumans has for centuries been at the heart of all political oppression.

As with the rest of mainstream culture, there is in this eco-centric literature a general disavowal of the suffering of nonhumans despite the seventy billion who are killed each year (trillions if we consider the annual slaughter of sea creatures) for meat, jackets, fur collars, handbags, watchbands, hats, shoes – all commodities unnecessary for, and in fact detrimental to, our health and mental well-being. The rare animal who rises to the status of an individual by such authors is generally a domestic pet or a rescued farm animal.

Rather than coldly expressing concern over animals as populations, we should, in the words of philosopher David Sztybel be “’hot’ for the individual animal.”[3] This new literature does this. And none too soon. Now that we are living through the sixth mass extinction since multicellular life rose on the earth a billion years ago, an extinction caused in great part by animal farming, an extinction, what’s more, that is nearly invisible to us, it’s time we begin to think of literature as a force that can benefit nonhumans too. A zoopoetic literature, which is sometimes straightforwardly veganic, is being written for the benefit of all sentient beings, not just as populations but as individuals, as individuals with bodily and mental sovereignty.

Such a literature will correct our received notions about what it means to share a lived sense of mutual vulnerability with nonhumans, to be one among many, not first among a few, of sovereign and suffering beings, each of whom, like us, is surrounded by the causes of death. Such a literature will also help us understand that humans need no longer be one of those causes.

(photo by Elige Veganismo of cow in restraining device for slaughter)


[1] The term zoopoetics was introduced by Jacques Derrida in his 1997 The Animal that Therefore I Am, but it has recently been more carefully inflected by Aaron Moe in his book Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry (Lexington 2013) as a counter to, and a clarification of, ecocriticism and ecopoetics.

[2] This broadscale disavowal of animal farming and slaughter by a discipline that one would think would try to look this issue squarely in the face isn’t a problem intrinsic only to ecology-centric literature; it can also be seen even in the field of new materialist thought about biopower. See my essay, “Ecopoetry, Speculative Ontology, and the Disavowal of the Slaughterhouse: Some Notes on Ethics and Biopower” in Matter.

[3] Personal correspondence.

Little Known Bible Verses (Preceded by a Rather Long Note) or Why You Won’t Find This Piece on The Good Men Project

Editor’s Note: I knew within minutes of reading Rion Amilcar Scott’s essay that it deserved a home here, and I’m thrilled and proud for this to be the first piece I’ve selected for publication as a recent addition to the editorial team at As It Ought to Be. I am a big fan of The Good Men Project and the meaningful work they’re doing (see here or here or here), and there’s plenty to laud about the conversations in which they’re choosing to engage. (Full disclosure: TGMP reprinted an essay of mine from AIOTB days after I solicited Rion for this excellent piece.) Still, a significant part of community responsibility, even in the wake of our admiration or appreciation, is a willingness to have the tough conversations too. Rion’s experience sheds light on issues that are worthy of our consideration, and I hope that, in sharing them, the TGMP will feel challenged—and supported—to address them in a way that continues to move these many important conversations forward.

-Kirsten Clodfelter

An early draft of this piece.

An early draft of this piece, from the author’s journal

Little Known Bible Verses (Preceded by a Rather Long Note) or Why You Won’t Find This Piece on The Good Men Project

By

Rion Amilcar Scott

Author’s Note: I recently submitted this satirical piece to The Good Men Project, and it was accepted under the condition that I make a few revisions. I was asked, among other things, to cut the last section of the piece that pokes fun at Chick-fil-A.

A piece like this is similar to a game of Jenga, remove too many pieces or put them in the wrong place in the wrong way, and the whole thing topples over. I agreed to a few of his suggestions, but other parts in question were integral to the broader perspective and point-of-view of the piece. I didn’t care too much about getting “killed in the comments section,” since anyone who would take a “no homo” joke seriously in this context just isn’t paying close enough attention anyway. Bite my tongue for no one.

But it turns out that what it came down to for the editor was that we cut the Chik-fil-A reference because, as he put it, “They’re advertisers, so I’m concerned about that one.” 

Um, pause.

The Good Men Project identifies itself as an ongoing conversation about the contours and boundaries of masculinity. A worthy discussion. Playing out the scripts of bad or cartoonish manhood is at the heart of many of the problems our society seems to have a hard time shaking. Homophobia, much like racism, kills.

Participating in such a conversation is the very reason I decided to submit to The Good Men Project in the first place. My piece contains gags about transubstantiation, Halloween, the gluten-free craze, and a bunch of other subjects both serious and trivial, but the heart of the work deals with the very subjects The Good Men Project purports to tackle. Without those sections, it’s just a bunch of jokes about Facebook and football. Of course the Good Men Project needs to keep the heat and the lights on—that explains taking money from Chick-fil-A—but to do so at the expense of their very mission is the highest form of self-defeat.

These conversations make and shape us, and they can also bend and deform us. I’m not ashamed of much, but one of the things that often nags at me is how uncharitable my younger self could be toward classmates I perceived as queer. Many years later, after I had become a man and shed much of my childish homophobia, I heard my father speaking about acceptance and non-judgment toward gays and lesbians, and I wondered if things would have been different if we’d had that conversation much earlier. 

What does it mean when the perspectives and views of this social conversation—a conversation that should benefit everyone—are going unsaid to benefit only certain participants and leaving most others in the dark? More importantly, what does it mean when some of those engaged in the conversation are rape apologists or even anonymous rapists trying to justify their transgressions? What does it mean when a group of men’s rights activists show up to loudly proclaim that [white] men are an oppressed class? What it means is that we’ve ended up with one shitty, useless conversation.

It didn’t make sense to censor myself and mutilate my piece to make Chick-fil-A happy. I mean, all Chick-fil-A has ever given me is stomachaches and diarrhea. And I’m not pining to get accolades from the Chick-fil-A corporate offices. No writer has ever jumped up and said, “They love my work down at Chick-fil-A!” Most of all, even if my work appeared on a website called The Good Men Project, there’s no way I could reasonably call myself a Good Man while silencing my voice so some people somewhere could sell a few more homophobic chicken sandwiches. 

As Method Man would say, “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em”:

*

LITTLE KNOWN BIBLE VERSES

If thou giveth even a single Skittle to a six year old dressed as Spongebob on the 31st of October, then thou hath sinned against the Lord and worshipped mine enemy.

***

Thou shalt surrender ten percent of thy salary to a man in alligator-skin boots so that man may purchase a Rolls Royce, for that is the automobile of the Lord.

***

Thou shalt shout out the Lord thy God three to four times an hour in thy Facebook status.

***

Thee can pray all thou wants for a Superbowl victory, but if thou playest for the Buffalo Bills then thou shalt always lose for I am a petty and vengeful God and a long time ago a cornerback from the Bills cut in front of Me at Subway and then when the sandwich artist finally got to Me they were out of the kind of bread I like. So I turned to this fool, pointed my finger and was like, Thou shalt regret that.

***

On the Monday after the celebration of the resurrection of thy Lord and Savior, thou shalt return to thy sad and soul crushing labor. For on a day in November you will set aside a day for a gigantic meal with people thou don’t really like and that is worthy of a national holiday, but not the return of a man from the dead. Goeth and figureth.

***

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat—” And before Jesus could finish speaking, the disciple Thomas cut him off and said, “Um, Jesus, you know if this bread is gluten free?”

***

All religions are just different paths to the same destination. Except Scientology. That shit’s crazy. So saith the Lord.

***

And forthwith Judas came to Jesus, and said, “Hail, master”; and kissed him. And there did follow a long awkward silence in which both Judas and Jesus looked first out into the sky and then down at their feet. And Judas did chuckle a bit and Jesus did blush. And Judas swept his hair with his hand and said, “Uh, no homo.”

***

On Easter Sunday and on Christmas day as well, if thou doth believeth, then thou shalt log onto thy social network accounts and proclaim thy superiority over those who do not believe. If thou doth not believe then thou shalt log on and spread the good word about thy fealty to reason and how it makes thou intellectually superior to the believer. And it shall all be very insufferable. And for everyone else—those who don’t really care that much—Facebook and Twitter shall be more unpleasant than usual. Best to just log off and go enjoy thy day.

***

After the Sermon, the disciple Tom raised his hand. “Jesus,” he said. “If your message boils down to ‘Just don’t be a dick,’ then why do so many act like dicks in your name?” Jesus nodded, then Jesus shrugged and then Jesus wept.

***

The animals on Noah’s Ark numbered in the millions—some more flavorsome than even goats and chickens and cows, but Noah’s family dined on the really, really delicious ones and after the flood cleared there were no truly tasty animals left.

***

“Dude, are we drinking your blood?”

***

And Jesus did see Mary Magdalene walking down a street in Galillee and she did look fine as frog’s hair. And He called out: “Turn the other cheek this way, baby!”

***

There came a time when the prophet Mike Huckabee appeareth on Fox News and said: “People, I have spoken to the Lord and he still hates the whole gay thing—I don’t know, something about butt sex. And here’s the bad news: He said you’re either with Him or against Him on this one. But the good news is, there’s a special chicken sandwich you can eat to ward off the gay.”

And the righteous did descend upon Chick-fil-a. After eating the greasy chicken patties upon dry bread, the righteous descended upon the bathroom and there followed much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And the righteous cried out:

“God, what is this nasty shit?”

“This shit taste like some doodooronemy.”

“Lord, why has thou forsaken thee. Couldn’t you order us to eat at Friday’s or something?”

“Good God, is this nasty; I think I’d rather put a penis in my mouth.”

And the Lord did take pity upon His children, showering them in Barilla pasta. The righteous rejoiced and clapped and sang and waved their arms as their blood sugar spiked from the carbohydrate intake.

 

A version of this piece originally appeared on Rion Amilcar Scott’s blog, Datsun Flambe.

***

Rion Amilcar Scott has contributed to PANK, Fiction International, The Rumpus, and Confrontation, among others. Raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, he earned an MFA at George Mason University and presently teaches English at Bowie State University. He can also be found at forgottentunneltv.tumblr.com.