What spurs our collective outrage? What kind of stories trigger action in our community?
During the last week of July, the news story about the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe dominated most media outlets. My Facebook feed was drowning in pleas for justice, calls for punishment, and an overwhelming sense of unfettered outrage. Local voices expressed their ire and ranted their disgust. I too was upset over what appeared to be the senseless, and possibly illegal, killing of a majestic animal by an American dentist on a trophy hunt.
Empathy, the ability to understand, to connect with, and to share the feelings of another, is a powerful emotion that has the ability to elicit action, impact, and change. I believe we live in an empathetically rich community here in the Triangle area. We speak from the heart both openly and often. But I would also argue our empathy is quite selective.
The same week the news of Cecil’s death made headlines, there was another noteworthy lion making noise, although the outrage was rather muted.
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According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the armed forces of president Bashar Al Assad killed hundreds of civilians during the last week of July; the so-called week of Cecil outrage.
In Arabic, Al Assad translates to The Lion.
Sadly that week was nothing out of the ordinary for Syria. Over the past four years, civilian populations have been bombed, entire communities have become refugees, and people from all walks of life have been shot and killed in the midst of this complex armed conflict. Various human rights organizations now put the total death count at over 230,000 since the conflict started back in 2011.
The same week Cecil’s death sparked a global and local outcry, the lion known as Assad killed with impunity from our outrage. Why does it seem like we don’t care? Is Syria too complicated or too far away? Have we become apathetic to news coming out of the Middle East?
Yes, the story of a lion’s tragic death is worth noting. But how can we simultaneously remain silent on so many other issues of great magnitude?
The prolific Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The sentiment of this adage, highlighting the power of perspective and the importance of the storyteller, is found in various oral and written traditions around the world. Perhaps all the attention over Cecil’s death indicates that lions do have their own historians in today’s contemporary world. Or perhaps the outrage says something deeper about us as a community and what we value both consciously and sub-consciously.
Why did this story engage our collective empathy so effectively? And in turn, what must Syrians do to garner our outrage, our attention, and our calls for action against their lion?
If we turn our focus back home, why do many of us not have the same gut reaction to systematic racism in the U.S.? Why are we not inspired to speak passionately about local issues that effect people in our own back yard like homelessness, poverty, or police brutality?
Why is our empathy so selective?
I am not arguing that the death of Cecil is not worthy of some reaction. I am asking us to look within and question the magnitude of our reactions, our outrage, and our silence. We need to consider why we care about some issues and not others. Empathy is a boundlessly powerful storytelling and peace-building tool, but we need to explore how privilege, racism, xenophobia and a host of other isms can influence and greatly impact our selective empathy.
Pitting issues against one another, or ranking forms of oppression and violence, is for the most part a rather useless exercise. But I do think it is worth exploring. It is important to understand our triggers are a product of our environment, our experiences, and our complex identities. Why do we care about Cecil and not the crimes of Assad? Do we show the same care and compassion for the people in our own community that we express for an animal on the other side of the world? If the answer is yes, then let’s work harder to tell those stories authentically and powerfully. If the answer is no, then it’s long overdue for us to sit down and ask ourselves, why?
In the mean time, there is more than one lion in the news worth our attention.
Will McInerney is a poet, journalist and educator. He specializes in the intersections of conflict resolution and creative expression through oral history collection and storytelling in Middle East and North Africa-based conflict zones. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.