3 Things Cecil the Lion has taught us about Western Culture

Not since Mufasa perished at the hand of Scar, has the death of a lion so captured the public imagination.

Cecil is gone.Brought down by a dentist named Walter, aided and abetted by an accomplice called Theo. The names would, I’m sure, be changed to something more exotic should Disney ever choose to animate this sorry saga.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have foreseen the impact Cecil would have in death, violent or otherwise. But an impact he has made. And what an impact. There is even the possibility that Walter Palmer will be extradited to Zimbabwe.

Cecil’s story isn’t just the story of a famous lion. Cecil’s story reveals something about where we have come to as a culture.

For a start, it reminds us of the almost overweening power of the media.

How many of us heard of Cecil the lion before his untimely death? Not many. But if you watch television news or read digital or print media, you will know all about Cecil. You will be aware of the worldwide outrage at his death. And the threats to kill his nemesis – or in the eyes of some, his murderer – Walter. A combination of news media and social media has transformed the death of a lion into a morality tale. And, as usually happens, our response to the narrative is an indication of our moral fibre or lack thereof.

News media and social media has an ability to shape any narrative, wresting any control of that narrative from its main protagonists. The authorities in Zimbabwe, Walter Palmer and Cecil himself are simultaneously transformed into actors on a world stage and puppets in the hands of the Western media.

That power is also manifest in news stories that are not covered. I appreciate that arguments from silence are not the strongest. Consider, however, for a moment, one news story that has to my knowledge had no coverage by major news media in Britain. It’s the story of a doctor who works for Planned Parenthood offering, in a sting video, to sell body parts from aborted babies. This video will give you an insight into the story. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Whether your are pro-life or pro-choice, the kind of outlook expressed by the doctor is an important factor in the debate. So one wonders, why no coverage? It suggests that the media not only shapes the narrative but also creates it. And it is very selective about what it includes in the narrative. I guarantee if a pro-life doctor has been filmed saying that women were being paid not to have abortions, it would have been headline news. I’ll leave you to figure out why that might be.

Heard about Austria rejecting same-sex marriage? Probably not. You’ll not find any coverage in the mainstream British press without spending a lot of time trawling through google searches. And you might still draw a blank. You would need to read Gay Star News to find out about that vote that took place less than two months ago. Yet when Pitcairn Island, with a population of 48, legalised same-sex marriage, it was covered both in the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph.

We can only conclude that the Western media considers the death of Cecil the lion more newsworthy than the covert trade in body parts of aborted babies. And more newsworthy than a member of the EU rejecting same-sex marriage.

The second cultural revelation is connected to the first.

I will put it in the form of a question: what does Cecil’s death, or rather the coverage of his death tell us about the moral climate in the West? Quite a lot.

The way this story has been covered and the ensuing reaction, feels like the way a murder story would be reported. And sad to say, the reaction is greater and more visceral than a murder story normally generates.

Walter Palmer’s fatal arrow has touched hearts in a way that the outrages of ISIS seem unable to. Just watch Jimmy Kimmel’s commentary. And witness the outpouring of celebrity rage.

Perhaps the story reveals that we care more about animals than people.That’s not true of everyone. Of course not. However, it seems to sum up Western culture, or at the very least sums up the views of many Westerners.

We’re still waiting for the outrage over some of the atrocities perpetrated against Christians in the developing world. The controversy surrounding the Liverpool Care Pathway never seemed to touch the nation like the death of an elderly lion has.

One is left with the unsettling feeling that, whatever the moral rights and wrongs of hunting, and however upsetting to see such a noble creature as this lion hunted down, our moral vision is somewhat askew.

We are also living with something of a moral tension. In the Jimmy Kimmel video (linked above), Kimmel qualifies his criticism of Palmer by stating that he is not against hunting, if it’s for conservation purposes or if it’s your culture. But that’s just the problem, hunting is Walter Palmer’s culture!

This is the kind of double standard we see every day in news media: we promote and celebrate freedom until we don’t like what someone does with the freedom we say belongs to us all. The moral relativism that has for so long reigned in the West is beginning to tear it apart. And once we try moralising, we get ourselves into a moral muddle.

Finally, despite the overreaction and the hype. Despite our moral contradictions, there is something in this story that gives us reason to hope.

Somehow we still have a capacity to recognise what is beautiful, good even noble. Cecil had his own grandeur. To end his life wounded by a crossbow bolt and then put down seems an ignominious end for such a creature.

Many will feel that way even though they can’t explain why. Rose George in the Guardian put it well: “I felt only disgust and rage, somewhat inarticulately.” 

That’s the thing. We know there is something wrong, but we’re not sure exactly why.

Christian apologists have long argued that our appreciation of beauty points to a Creator who has given us the capacity to make aesthetic as well as moral judgments. (Alistair McGrath skilfully unpacks this argument in chapter 7 of his book Mere Apologetics). After all, how would a capacity for recognising beauty fit into an evolutionary approach to life and the universe? We don’t exactly need such a capacity for survival!

Amongst all the muddle, moralising and genuine sadness, the Lion of the tribe of Judea is still calling to broken people in a broken culture. At a time when we have forgotten our Christian roots, Mufasa’s words could well be spoken by Jesus: “You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me.”

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