Hashtags look like pitchforks. Maybe that’s the problem.
Hashtags – or what we used to call the “pound sign” back in those innocent pre-Twitter days – somewhat resemble the business end of a pitchfork crossed with another such end. Ever since James Whale ended his brilliant film The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with an unruly mob brandishing pitchforks against a designated monster – and Whale, who was gay and closeted, knew something about unseemly persecution – pitchforks have meant less to farmers and more to the culture at large as a symbol of mob rule. “Mob rule” used to be an effective stigma phrase; every single time a lawyer used it before the Supreme Court in the 20th century, it was what we had to avoid. Now it’s what we’re proud of?
The double-pitchfork of the week was #extraditewalt. In case you’ve been living under the Ngorongoro Crater, an American dentist recently killed Cecil the Lion, a beloved, tourist-attracting 13-year-old in Zimbabwe. The details of the case are hardly heartening: Dr. Walter Palmer’s guides used a car-bound carcass to lead Cecil out of Hwange National Park, where it would have been illegal to shoot him. Palmer hit Cecil with an arrow, which failed to kill him, and Palmer and his guides spent the next two days tracking wounded Cecil in Park-adjacent brush before finally shooting him dead with a gun. They severed and carried away the head without noticing the GPS attached to Cecil’s body by Oxford scientists. To paraphrase any Scooby Doo villain, they would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling university kids.
Next came the pitchforks: Walter Palmer is as of this writing hiding somewhere in Zimbabwe, his Minnesota practice indefinitely closed, his face and name scrubbed from dentist websites. (Palmer issued an early statement blaming his guides for not telling him about Cecil; does a white guy in trouble always have to blame a black man? The guides may well have not known who Cecil was either.) The pitchforks were assisted by Jimmy Kimmel, who thought this case sufficient reason to interrupt his late-night talk-show monologue. 15 years ago, as host of The Man Show, Kimmel used to make fun of vegetarians and selective outrage over animal protection; now he’s upbraiding hunters. Kimmel may be best known for his “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets,” a recurring segment which, in my opinion, lampoons people who have mustered the so-called “keyboard courage” to disparage famous people, so it’s slightly ironic, to me, that Kimmel is basically endorsing keyboard courage against Walter Palmer.
Max Fisher at Vox has a good article about the problems with “mob justice” as he calls it — that it has real-world consequences for people who weren’t the perpetrators (e.g. Palmer’s employees), that it may be misplaced (innocent until proven guilty, anyone?), that the tactics can make people fear for their lives. All true, yet there’s more.
Personally, I take a rather long, historical view of things, so I blame a Cecil for this mess, namely The Right Honourable Cecil J. Rhodes, who was a British imperialist, businessman, mining magnate, politician, ne plus ultra colonialist racist, founder of Rhodesia (which became Zimbabwe 80 years later, leaving behind the colonialist flag that Dylann Roof was proud to fly), and more than anyone else, the person that led the European crusade to ignore and belittle Southern Africa’s indigenous population while stealing the continent’s mineral resources. Johannesburg, South Africa, remains the largest city in the world not positioned on a major river or body of water; instead it’s positioned next to the world’s biggest gold mine as a direct result of the Second Boer War that Rhodes demanded Britain fight (which it won).
I mention Rhodes and Johannesburg because one thing they still symbolize, more than a century later, is that normal rules don’t apply to them – that with mind over matter, you can defy the laws of physics, gravity, or at least human civilization. In this sense, the “mob rule” of internet outrage (or web-rage) is meant to be, paradoxically, the restoration of the rules of civilized society, and we’ve seen it in at least three high-profile cases directly related to Rhodes’ old stomping grounds: Justine Sacco and her tweet “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” which went viral on her way to South Africa; Johannesburg-born bi-racial Trevor Noah and his anti-Semitic, anti-woman tweets which went viral the day after he was selected to succeed Jon Stewart; and now Walter Palmer. In each case, apparently someone in or going to Southern Africa thought the rules wouldn’t apply to them; in each case, web-driven witch-hunts caused deep personal and professional repercussions (though Noah, after losing some tour dates, is still getting Stewart’s old job). One wonders if Africans share this liberal-Westerner outrage, if they see it as an altered form of colonialism (imposing Western values), or if, perhaps, they would prefer that, when the West shines a light on their part of the world, it would instead work toward eradication of AIDS, empowerment of women, and/or the protection of endangered species.
Of course, web-rage and dedication to humanist (and animalist) causes aren’t mutually exclusive; what Fisher at Vox doesn’t mention is that they’re in a complicated symbiotic relationship, not unlike the red-billed oxpeckers and rhinoceroses of the African plains. Probably, most of the people who retweeted unfortunate statements by Justine Sacco and Trevor Noah had already been aware of the race-indiscriminate scourges of AIDS and disenfranchisement of women and Jews; that’s part of why they re-tweeted them. In many ways that’s laudable. (You’d hate to think it was just because clickbait is fun, and stories about prejudice make for more re-tweets.) For someone like Ricky Gervais, who has been trying to call attention to illegal hunting for years now, there’s nothing opportunistic about mentioning Cecil the Lion. But a lot of people get distracted by a new shiny thing, fulminate for a day or two, and then move on. This, too, feels internet-driven; you make fun of Justine Sacco, Trevor Noah, and Walter Palmer for a day or two, and then other commenters make fun of you for making fun, and then we all move on, waiting for the next distraction. It’s easy to hope that your tweets may have had some marginal Kingian bending of the universe’s moral arc toward justice, a lot harder to dedicate yourself to bending that arc every day. But we have to start somewhere, right? Well…
One problem with associating yourself with web-rage is, as Fisher mentions, scattershot effects and the normalization of tactics that may eventually punish someone less deserving – say, a mom who doesn’t vaccinate or a person we deem over-religious. We’re losing the distinction between “punching up” and “punching down.” High-traffic infotainment sites (Gawker, Buzzfeed, Slate) encourage readers to excoriate celebrities/politicians/athletes/musicians who say or tweet questionable things (a very partial list would include Mel Gibson, John Mayer, Rahm Emanuel, and 50-Cent), but in our flattening twittersphere, non-celebs are getting more and more of the same treatment. Justine Sacco and Walter Palmer’s white well-off privilege apparently qualifies them for an up-punch, and Trevor Noah’s non-white status appeared to confuse the punching direction. One of the funny things about the regular Kimmel mean-tweets feature is that it also confuses the punch direction – when Cameron Diaz reads something vicious that someone wrote about her, who’s the butt of the joke? It would be better to retweet #extraditewalt if it didn’t play into the sort of manufactured outrage and borderline harassment that these websites encourage to stay in business. It would also be better if everyone could clarify where the line is on punching up and punching down (impossible).
It would also be nice if mourners for Cecil the Lion demonstrated similar affection for Cecil’s cousins, for dozens of other endangered species, for the market in illegal ivory and other animal bounties, for the leather on the bottom of their shoes, perhaps for the cotton on their shirts? I don’t question my friends’ sincerity as much as their dedication. I believe we can move from opportunism to activism – from likes and tweets to donations. We might walk and chew gum at the same time, like Bono does, dedicating himself to multiple good causes (and recording albums and touring as a hobby). Sure, but in the real world, time and attention are limited, and it’s not clear that many of us know how to do as Bono does. I don’t think I do. I don’t think Kimmel stops his monologue for every squirrel that gets run over or child that gets brutalized and killed.
In the real world, we choose our battles when it comes to Rhodes’ racist legacy. And frankly, Rhodes succeeded in his time (if you’ve got a country named after you, that’s called success) because of a legacy that existed way before he was born, a legacy of putting chains on the dark-skinned people of a continent and bringing them to America as slaves. I do want to help the innocent, endangered, beautiful mammals of the world (birds and fish and plants, meh), but I’m not sure that humans don’t need and deserve some of our limited attention first. I don’t normally play the “oh, outrage about this but crickets about that?” game, but in this case, if you’re not a Bono-level multi-tasker, listen to my friend, and CalArts Associate Dean, Nataki Garrett Myers (who was kind enough to give me permission to quote her):
I was trying to get through the day without comparing Black people to lions but I must speak on this. The recent spate of deaths of unarmed Black people by the hands of police and citizens alike and now lions in Zimbabwe have at least one thing in common. When you live in a world that continuously normalizes your behavior while criminalizing women, all people of color and even animals you begin to believe you can behave with impunity. If you believe you are the law then you can behave above it. I can only imagine the lion killer’s politics, world view, associations and memberships. The same with Darren Wilson, Timothy Loehmann, Johannes Mehserle, Brian Encinia, George Zimmerman, Ray Tensing and that demon who murdered the parishioners at Emmanuel Baptist Church during their bible study.
I feel like I am in mourning everyday. I do not understand why so many of my friends have posted more about the lion than any of the recent police killings of unarmed black people. For those of you who are posting about the recent killings of people: I know you didn’t do it for me but it is comforting to know my friends are equally outraged about the killing of UNARMED CITIZENS.
Yes, I am very sad for the lion but I GRIEVE for #SandraBland and#SamDubose and #KindraChapman and All of the people who died Just this week at the hands of police violence IN THE PAST 7 DAYS!. The ripple of their deaths have yet to fully reach the shores of our existence. The lions cubs will most likely be destroyed and so will the lives of the FAMILIES and FRIENDS of the murdered MEN and WOMEN I’ve mentioned.
I’m blessed that my humanity matters to those who love me and whom I love. I pray that the people I love can get through their lives without being hunted and slaughtered for simply moving through their normal daily lives.