Why Cecil the Lion Sparked More Outrage than Sandra Bland

It’s 1 AM in the morning, and I’m watching some silly TV show as I try to fall asleep so that I won’t be too exhausted at work. All of a sudden, my heart sinks as a familiar tune plays. I avert my eyes as Sarah McLachlan appears on the screen, while one of her more famous—and depressing—songs plays in the background. Yet again, I find myself trying not to watch this SPCA commercial featuring McLachlan that contains some of the saddest possible images of abused and neglected animals.

When I turn on the news after coming home from work the next day, reports of robberies, assaults, and other crimes go right over my head, as do the photos of that week’s murder victims. It’s only later that I realize how strange my response to these two different series of images truly is. Why was I so emotionally distressed by images of animal abuse but seemingly unaffected by images of violence committed against another person?

It’s a question that I ask of my fellow human beings in the wake of the killing of Cecil the lion. The amount of rage, distress, and sadness I’ve seen on social media and in the news over the past few days is almost unparalleled. That outpouring of emotion is strange especially considering the less intense responses to the series of killings of human beings over the past month.

This difference in emotional response has been noted by almost every advocate for a cause, from both the left and right wings. Those, including myself, who are concerned with the plight of racial minorities in America were infuriated that the death of Sandra Bland didn’t receive nearly as much attention or grief as the killing of a lion. Advocates for the military (as well as a few Islamophobes) were similarly incensed that the response to the killing of four soldiers in Chattanooga, which the FBI is treating as a case of terrorism, was less emotional and less widespread than the response to the killing of Cecil.

Things only get stranger when you look at the official responses to these tragedies. With justice for Sandra Bland unlikely to occur for some time, many people were shocked by the comparatively quick response by both legal authorities and hunting organizations to the lion’s death.

In fact, Safari Club International has already suspended the memberships of both the dentist who killed the lion and his hunting guide. The guide and another person have also been criminally charged in Zimbabwe, and officials in Congress, the Justice Department, and the US Fish and Wildlife Department are either launching their own investigations or assisting African authorities in their investigations.

Why the difference in responses from the media, government, and society as a whole? We may not know, but a study by sociologists at Northeastern University seems to show that this strange difference in empathy does exist. In the study, four fake news stories about a crime wave were presented to college students, and the authors of the study then gauged their emotional responses. The victims in these four stories included a human adult, a human infant, an adult dog, and a puppy. While the story of the crimes against the human infant caused the greatest emotional response, it was closely followed by the responses to the attacks on the adult dog and puppy, while the least emotional response was to the attack on the human adult.

Whatever the reason for our less empathetic approach to violence against human adults, the consequences of our priorities when it comes to death are very real. While Cecil’s killers will likely face jail time due to the global public outrage, the comparative apathy towards the death of human adults, whether they are black, white, religious, or atheist, means that justice will come much more slowly (if at all) in those cases. The death of Cecil is no doubt tragic, but humanity’s detached response to the killings of other human beings is the real cause for concern.

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