Reading between the lions

lion kingI don’t have a lot of time. Facebook is coming for me. So I’ll get straight to it.

Firstly, I suspect that the dentist has some emotional issues he probably needs to deal with, which makes him identical to 7 billion other people. What makes him different, however, is that we’ve decided that he alone must be destroyed. Walter Palmer must be hunted down and shot full of the arrows of righteousness.

Of course people have the right to be angry about whatever they’re angry about. I’m not going to engage in Facebook whataboutery and say they can’t be angry about the nasty killing of Cecil unless they’re angry about [insert injustice here]. But I am going to suggest, with respect, that the response to the killing has been a touch inconsistent; and it’s this inconsistency that makes me wonder if the current explosion of emotion is about much more than an act of arrogant cruelty. I think that Palmer has pulled some powerful triggers deeply rooted in our consciousness.

Some of them are fairly obvious. Naming the lion humanised it and transformed a hunter into a murderer. But what about the name itself? Tinged with defeat by half a century of Hollywood nerds and detective novel cuckolds, “Cecil” has become a victim’s name, slouching along next to “Norm” or “Seymour”. It’s the name of an awkward, meek soul, unlucky in life and love. It’s the name of the eternal underdog, put upon by the rich and arrogant and powerful.

A stereotyped victim needs a stereotyped bully to complete the picture of injustice, and this incident provides a perfect candidate: the Ugly American Abroad. Loathing the US is one of the last socially acceptable vices, and in the last week the right-thinking world has had its anger-nipples powerfully and deliciously tweaked.

we expect the super-rich to be psychotic

For me, though, the most interesting trigger that is being overlooked is Palmer’s occupation. Facebook is full of other animals killed by other Americans. Donald Trump’s son has posed with bloody carcasses but no one is hanging wreaths on Trump Tower. Maybe we expect the super-rich to be psychotic. But dentists hold a special place in our culture.

For starters, they hurt us as children, and sent us away without an apology, our mouths bleeding and drooling and numb. They are the original cowardly bullies of our middle-class memories: they ground metal into our faces, but when we tried to resist they told us to lie still. The unjust laws of adulthood protected them from a well-deserved punch in the nose.

There’s a widely held belief that dentists are more likely than any other professional to commit suicide. Even dentists believe it: articles in medical journals have anxiously addressed the phenomenon. The thing is, it’s not actually true. Yet the persistence of the myth suggests we want it to be true. Our childhood selves demand it. After all, how could dentists not want to kill themselves? How can they live with themselves?

The name, the nationality and the occupation are all potent triggers, and all three were pulled simultaneously. If you doubt their collective impact, imagine if a lion called 94B7-Z9 had been shot by a Zambian taxi boss. The ripple would barely have reached Harare, let alone CNN and Time magazine.

Now, though, the ripple has not only spread around the world but has started bouncing back on itself, creating an inevitable new swell: anger about anger.

As misanthropy becomes ever more fashionable, the zeitgeist has swung dramatically towards self-loathing. Some extremists have even stumbled over into self-parody, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who have called for Palmer to be executed. (Apparently the ethical treatment of animals doesn’t extend to hairless primates.)

But because we are all lost in a giant echo chamber, the reaction to the reaction has become just as despairing. For every Facebook status damning Palmer there is one damning the rest of us. What kind of monsters have we become, the thought leaders ask, if we value the lives of animals over the lives of humans?

If we really cared, we’d be able to name 50 of the most endangered species

It’s a silly question, of course. Every city, farm, plantation and abattoir is proof of how little we value animal life. The fact that we have something called “nature” – a ghetto in which we keep the animals that are unprofitable to eat or wear – is testament to our solipsism as a species. If we really cared about animal life, we’d be able to name 50 of the most endangered species. Hell, we’d be able to name five.

But there is one thing that we value more than human life, and that is our projections; of nobility, beauty, purity, family, loyalty. Once, in the Stone Age or Bronze Age or Iron Age, we could project them onto each other; but now the Iron Age has given way to the Irony Age, with its prevailing belief that we are simply the worst thing ever. So where do we project our finer ideals? What blank canvas is large and empty enough to accommodate all the righteousness we want to believe in? Cue a roaring lion.

Animals are safe carriers of our projections because they can never disappoint us. A lion or a rhino or a dolphin will never get hammered in a bar and lurch over to you to confess that it loathes the females of its species, including its mate, and that it’s now going down to the casino to gamble away its young’s education fund. But even if it did, we’d probably forgive it, because we understand that “nature” is a cruel place and that judgment is futile. If a lion kills a member of another pride that wanders onto its territory, it’s not being xenophobic; it’s just being a lion.

In the confusion of life the simplicity of animals soothes our complexity. And when the carrier of some of our worst prejudices kills the carrier of some of our noblest projections, it’s inevitable that some people are going to roar.

So are we being hypocritical or obsessive or callous in reacting however we react to the Palmer story? Maybe. But maybe we should also cut ourselves the same slack we give to animals. After all, aren’t we just animals being animals?


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Published by Tom Eaton

Tom Eaton is a columnist, satirist, screenwriter and sometime-novelist.

7 thoughts on “Reading between the lions

  1. As usual, you went there with this piece, and I love your writing more and more. You make me want to have more opinions and express each and every one of them, especially if I can learn to do it as well as you do.

    Liked by 1 person

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