Cecil: Part 1: Let’s talk about what we’re talking about

One of my hesitations with social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even blogging) is the inherent difficulty in using these tools to discuss issues that are located in a large and complex grey area of social opinion and politics. However, increasingly, news websites seem to be showing Twitter responses as part of their coverage, so there’s no denying that these are important platforms for engaging with current issues. This does not mean that we need to simplify our discussions to a watered down understanding of an issue to make it more readable. Given that, my approach to this topic takes place in a number of parts, each focusing on a different facet of the story.

By now, most people have probably heard about the hunter who killed a lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil, resulting in extensive news coverage and an outpouring of social media attention. One of the problems I see happening with this story is that many people are approaching it from different angles and experiences, but they’re all trying to have the same conversation. This is very difficult to do, because when we think we’re talking about the same thing, but aren’t, or are talking about the same thing, but don’t think we are, it leads to misunderstanding and conflict.

We need to know what we’re talking about.

I want to be upfront about how my personal baggage informs my mental organization of this issue. To do this, I’ll outline the range of more nuanced issues that I think are at play here so that I can discuss them individually and with specificity. For me, here are the things I’m thinking about in relation to this story:

  1. The effect of media representation and language on public perceptions;
  2. The decision about whether, as hunters, to defend or ostracize;
  3. The concern among hunters that stories like this puts all hunters in the same category;
  4. The importance of knowing the scientific facts about the animal and its ecology;
  5. The need to understand the politics and economics of conservation.

So these five sub-topics are really the ones that are the most important for me in this issue, and indeed in many other stories in the media involving hunting. I think it’s hard for me to talk about this without partially compartmentalizing each of these considerations and focusing on them somewhat individually. This is not to say that there aren’t other important issues, or even that these points are arranged in a hierarchy of importance. My opinion on this story is also informed by a combination of each of these more specific issues; this is just how I organize my thoughts.

One of the most important things for me in discussing an issue like this one is having the willingness and ability to embrace what people might perceive as paradox: to be able to say that I think what Walter Palmer and his hunting guides did was wrong, but that I still defend hunting; that I really have no personal interest in hunting a lion, but that I do not disagree with lion hunting; that killing this individual lion might have been wrong for sociocultural reasons, but that I understand the ecology of the species enough to know that it wasn’t necessarily wrong on a biological level; and that even if I disagree with the way certain people hunts, I am ok with it as long as it is legal. In other words, it’s possible to have multiple opinions about different aspects of an issue.

I’ll discuss this issue in three parts: Part 1 will focus on the first point; Part 2 will address points 2 & 3; and Part 3 will address points 4 & 5.

Part 1:
The way media and language frame this issue has a profound effect on how people perceive and talk about it.

Subconscious perceptions informed by value-laden language ultimately have tremendous consequences for how meaningfully I can have discussions with people about my other four points.

I’ll say that so far, I have mixed feelings about the way media has covered the story. I’m not a media analyst; I have no professional training in this, only my own perceptions and reactions to the language used in the media. This is also not a systematic selection of media, just a couple examples to illustrate my point.

The first coverage I saw about this was a CBC article that covered Jimmy Kimmel’s reaction to the killing of ‘Cecil the lion’. Now,  right up front, we need to recognize that the very fact that this lion had a name imbues the whole story with a sociocultural importance that would likely not be present if the lion were presented as a nameless, wild, apex predator, living in a wild habitat, doing wild things. A discussion of the effects of anthropomorphizing animals is out of my scope here, but these analyses exist, and suffice to say that giving the lion a name changes its significance for the general public. I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong; I’m only recognizing that it changes the nature of the issue. Would we still care about lions as a species? Yes. Would we feel the same personal attachment to the individual lion? Probably not.

Framing of Hunters as People:
Right from the outset, CBC describes the hunter as someone “who hunts big game for sport”. This is a loaded statement. I hunt big game, and consider myself engaged in athletic endeavours when doing so. The use of the term “trophy hunter” has also been prevalent. Describing any hunter in this way leaves out a whole range of important points about, for example, what the person does with the meat, their financial contribution and dedication to conservation (granted, we know what Palmer did with the meat, but I’m speaking generally about the use of this language), and the ecological effects of removing certain individuals from wildlife populations. Both Jimmy Kimmel and Johnny Rodrigues, chairmen of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, make comments about hunters being sexually inadequate or simply as people “who’ve got an ego. They’re bored with their lives“. I can tell you, with complete certainty, that neither of these two things are issues for me. In any case, this kind of language presents such a strong value judgment on the motivations of hunters as a whole, not only Walter Palmer, that is simply not true or encompassing of the activity.

Perceptions of Hunting Ethics:
There also seems to be a large focus on the fact that Palmer used a crossbow to shoot the lion, as if that somehow makes it inherently unethical. Let’s remember that bows are capable of delivery tremendous amounts of energy to kill animals by hemorrhaging. This does not make them less effective than guns. Perhaps the particular shot that Palmer took was unsafe, unethical, and ineffective, but the language focusing on the fact that he used a crossbow is dangerous and misrepresentative of the effectiveness of bowhunting.

Simplifications of the Conservation Issue:
Multiple articles also highlight the fact that Palmer paid around $54 000 to kill the lion. This particular issue is more related to my fifth point above about the politics of conservation, and I’ll address this more comprehensively in another post; however, noting only the amount of money Palmer paid does not appropriately represent the full issue of paying large amounts of money for hunting opportunities. It’s an important point and has much more relevance than simply showing that he is an arrogant rich man, but this kind of language evokes emotional responses from people that are inevitably antagonistic to the idea of paying for killing, rather than the actual long-term effects of this system.

The Use of Euphemisms:
On the other side of the discussion, Kimmel tells Palmer to “Stop saying you took the Lion. You take Aspirin. You killed the lion”. I agree. He killed the lion. I always use the word kill, because I think we need to give things a name, not a euphemism. I also don’t think that what we do when we kill an animal is wrong, so I don’t mind using the word kill. I would rather honestly embrace the emotional response from the reality of what we do than try to shield others from it. I tend to agree with Kimmel here that if Palmer is attempting to soften the language he is using, it isn’t working. However, I would also caution against the association of killing with wrong that can sometimes be implied with statements like this.

Now, I’m not disputing the facts presented by these articles, and this particular post is not about my personal opinion on the story (I’ll get to that in the other posts about this). I only want to draw attention to the point that our choice of language has dramatic implications for how people react to and think about issues. When we discuss issues as controversial and far-reaching as this, and share strong opinions about them, we need to remember what we’re talking about and choose our words carefully. I think we need to be careful to speak only about the particular case we want to be talking about, and not imply truths about the broader issues involved.  If we’re not talking about hunters or hunting or lion conservation in general, then let’s not use language that conveys value judgments about those topics. Let’s present facts unencumbered by personal feelings about them and at the same time be aware of how our feelings and perceptions are informed by the language used to discuss an issue.

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