The trophy killing of Cecil the Lion by Minnesota dentist Dr. Walter Palmer was a major trending story on social media last week. If you’re unfamiliar with the basics of the story, click here. There seems to be rare, unanimous sense in the blogosphere that his actions were wrong; I’ve yet to see a post by anybody who thought the killing was a good, legitimate, or responsible action. The big-game hunting Safari Club to which Dr. Palmer belongs has disavowed him. So have responsible hunters. He has a history of illegal hunting. Many of his patients are disgusted by his behavior. So the argument is not whether or not we should defend his right to kill Cecil. The condemnation is deep and widespread.
Cecil The Lion And The “Yes, But What About” Argument
What caught my eye in the past week was how many people were upset not so much by the killing of Cecil, but by the fact that so many people cared. This led to an outpouring of what I call the “Yes, But What About” Argument. It goes like this: “One lion gets killed and the whole world gets upset. But nobody cares about…” Then you can fill in the blank with whatever cause or event you feel deserves more attention. The focus on Cecil thus became a lightning rod for partisans of all sorts of causes to protest the perceived lack of attention to their cause. “Yes, killing Cecil The Lion was wrong, but what about….”
A good friend who is passionately antiabortion posted this on Facebook: “It’s sad that all these liberals get upset about one lion. But nobody objects to Planned Parenthood and the selling of tissue.”
Another friend with a deeply felt belief posted this on Twitter: “I guess it’s bad that the lion got killed, but why is nobody paying attention to the murder of Sandra Bland and all the other women of color who have died under police custody.”
Here’s another similar point I read: “Let one lion get killed and everyone is in an uproar. But what about all the Illegal immigrants in America? Why is nobody speak up about that?
The Fallacy Of The Argument
America today is so polarized that many people tend to ascribe negative motives or lack of intelligence to anyone who disagrees with them. Listen closely to people asking questions of politicians and you will realize that quite often it’s not actually a question. It’s a statement of belief followed by “Don’t you agree?” The fallacy of the “Yes, But What About” argument can be seen in several dimensions.
First, people have the right to be upset about any cause that touches them. If folks are outraged by the murder of Cecil the Lion, and you are not, why should you care? Why are you so concerned with what other people consider to be important? Personally, I am happy whenever people react in a manner that is compassionate and considerate to a public issue. (Obviously, I abhor and despise any comments made that threatened the life of Dr. Palmer. It is completely unacceptable, both morally and legally, to threaten him with anything other than a fair judicial inquiry.)
Second, like all Americans who believe in the First Amendment, I fully support the right of people to speak their minds. But there is a falseness in their argument that “nobody cares” about anything but Cecil. I’ve seen dozens of posts online with variations of the “Yes, but when Planned Parenthood commits abortions nobody speaks up” theme, but the statement simply isn’t true. Nor is it true that “nobody cares” about Sandra Bland and police violence. The truth is that both topics saturated online forums such as Twitter and Facebook and were talked about by millions of people. So who is it that just isn’t paying attention? The answer is: those people that disagree with your point of view. (It is absolutely true that many important causes have received less social media attention than the story of Cecil. But that doesn’t make compassion about Cecil wrong. It simply means that advocates for the neglected causes need to do a better job engaging others.)
Finally, it is entirely possible to care deeply about more than one issue. Many of the people I respect who were most upset about the death of Sandra Bland were also upset about the killing of Cecil The Lion. It is possible to be against abortion and against the killing of Cecil. One does not negate the other. The simplistic tendency by some people in social media to segregate issues in this way is both counterproductive and wrongheaded.
As Americans, we need to be passionate and compassionate advocates for the causes that matter to us. But I would add this: be as respectful to those who disagree with you as you are to those who share your point of view. It is all about respect. A more civil society is something that would benefit all of us.