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The Dentist and the Lion: the Politics of Outrage

When Walter Palmer, while on a hunting trip in Zimbabwe, took aim at a rather large lion and pulled the trigger, he hardly suspected that the shot he fired would ring out across the world.  The killing of the lion, which had affectionately been dubbed ‘Cecil’ by locals, would go on to provoke an international backlash against the tooth-technician cum great white hunter; a backlash which was carried by a social media buzzing with electronic outrage, which saw the website of Palmer’s business practice targeted, along with a slew of murderous missives which threatened the diminutive dentist with various, colourful forms of dismemberment.

But the sheer emotive response to the killing was indicative of a deeper trend. Even before Palmer had been revealed as the villain behind the curtain, campaigns had already been set into motion which began to frame the incident in increasingly human terms.  Cecil was described as a ‘victim’ who had been ‘murdered’ and a petition was set up which demanded ‘Justice for Cecil’ (swiftly achieving hundreds of thousands of signatures).  The emphasis of the activists who publicised the case fell on that of ‘rights’ – specifically in the way Cecil’s had been breached.

But this begs a question. Is it advisable or even possible to extend the notion of ‘right’ to the animal world?

The concept of right, in its modern form, is premised on universality.  If, for instance, you advocate ‘gay rights’ – you are not simply arguing gays should have a specific set of rights which apply to them in isolation; on the contrary you are saying they should enjoy the same freedoms as heterosexuals, i.e. as everyone else.  When we fight for women’s rights, we do so again in order to universalise them, to bring them up to speed with the rights of men.  And so on. The question of ‘right’, then, is pivoted around universality.   But this is why it is difficult to apply the concept to the animal world.  When we say that animals should have certain rights which we should not violate, we are confronted by the difficulty of universalising the principle – in as much as it is difficult to see how animals can have rights in regard to one another.

Even to the most compassionate ear, it strikes a note of absurdity to say that a gazelle has a right to life which has been breached by the lion who consumes it, or that a grizzly bear driven from a cave by another has experienced a violation of its right to property.   Any attempt to apply ‘right’ to the animal world is refuted by the logic inherent to the concept of ‘right’ itself – it denotes a universal element which in animals simply does not inhere.    In fact the natural world itself is nothing other than the ceaseless, uninterrupted process by which species are driven into existence and then brutally wrenched from it – 99.9 per cent of all species that have ever existed are, in fact, already extinct.

Not to say, of course, we should behave with unbridled brutality toward animals.  In terms of radically affecting ecosystems which human societies depend on for food and other resources, we must be judicious in the way we consume – overfishing, for instance, can have disastrous consequences.  And in terms of causing an animal unnecessary physical harm or distress we should always refrain – for such behaviour is senseless and demeaning, not just toward the animal who endures it, but also to the person who inflicts it.   On this count, Walter Palmer should be condemned.  But it is simply wrong to see him as an evil murderer.

But in the period post-enlightenment we have developed a powerful tendency to read nature through the prism of our own ethical life.  But there is something else too.   The philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently noted that, even from within the midst of perhaps the most severe economic crisis ever, we find it almost impossible to imagine any alternative to our world as it is.  In fact, Zizek noted wryly, it easier to fantasise the physical annihilation of the planet – depicted through many a cheesy Hollywood movie – than the collapse of capitalism as a social system.

Philosophically speaking there is an interesting inversion at work here, I think. Under capitalism when we see someone lying homeless in a gutter we are, ideologically speaking, encouraged to sigh sadly and feel pity, but underneath it all register a more profound truth; that there will always be homelessness and suffering, for social life is acquisitive and cruel and some must inevitably sink to the bottom. This is displayed in the form of a wistful, worldly realism which purports to recognise the immutability of human nature, its unchanging template; or to say the same, it provides the moment whereby that which is social-historical in essence becomes eternalised.

The corollary it seems to me, is often this; the more difficult it feels to conceive of change in the human realm the more the possibility of change is shifted onto the natural one; the more injustice is seen to be an elemental and permanent part of our organic constitution, so the protest against it is only really feasible on a displaced terrain.  Outrage and compassion are projected outward to be realised in another sphere. Writing for Clutch Magazine Britni Danielle noted a discrepancy between the flood of compassion for Cecil the lion and the more muted response to some of the recent victims of police brutality in the US – ‘the outpouring of love for Cecil, and the swift condemnation of his killer, is much more pronounced that the calls for justice for Renisha McBride or Rekia Boyd or Aiyana Jones.’

It provides us with a surreal, melancholy inversion; one where the human life is naturalised, and the animal life is humanised.

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Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press) and a first novel, The Dying Light (New Haven Publishing).

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