I don’t claim to be a prophet, but when I saw all the news stories and posts appearing this week about the rich American who’d shot Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, I knew what would come next: lots of self-righteous tweets and Facebook posts chastising everyone who was upset about the lion and telling them what they should really be concerned about instead.
Liberals said, “You should be more concerned about the victims of police brutality.”
Conservatives said, “You should be more concerned about aborted babies.”
And the more globally-minded said “You should be more concerned about the children in Africa who are dying of preventable diseases.”
It would be tempting to view this as an argument about human life versus animal life (and there is a long history of Westerners being more concerned with African wildlife than African people). But let’s be honest; this same sequence plays out even after stories of humans’ deaths as well:
This January, when the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked and a Kosher supermarket in Paris was taken hostage in the same week, some people said “You should be paying more attention to Boko Haram!”
Last summer, when Israel’s military was bombing schools and hospitals in Gaza, some people said “You should be more concerned about ISIS in Iraq, or Assad in Syria.”
In December 2012, when a gunman killed children at a school in Newtown, some conservatives said, “You should be more concerned about (you guessed it) abortion!”
Apparently, in a hyper-capitalist society characterised by constant competition, even empathy is a zero-sum game.
To put it in the simplest possible terms, here is the absurd premise upon which this race to the bottom is based: “If two bad things are happening, you can only care about one of them, preferably the one with the highest body count.”
Deep down, I think we all know this is flawed logic, which leads to crappy behaviour. No one giving a eulogy at a funeral says “Stop crying! She at least lived a long and happy life; lots of children in Africa don’t even live to see the age of five!” Yet we still feel its acceptable to belittle one legitimate human tragedy by pointing to another legitimate human tragedy.
Granted, it is possible to be so absorbed in one’s petty #FirstWorldProblems that one becomes oblivious to actual problems in the rest of the world. But it shouldn’t be impossible to weep both for the victims of police brutality and for cops killed in the line of duty. It should be possible, indeed entirely logical, to empathise both with the victims of the Taliban and of US drone strikes.
And yes, it should be possible to hold both human life and animal life in high regard.