The last 24 hours have seen an unabated outpouring of grief over a needless death. No, not over the poor human crushed to death in the Channel Tunnel during a desperate attempt to enter Britain illegally, but over Cecil, a Lion. Clearly it is sad that a noble creature was (allegedly) lured out of its protected native habitat in order to be ‘hunted’ by a moronic midwestern dentist, but the disproportionate public reaction bordered on the ridiculous. I’ve lost count of the number of torturous methods of giving said dentist the death penalty that have been mooted - many by those who have previously been so fervently vocal in their opposition to capital punishment. Judging by the anguished wails echoing throughout social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking a small child had been brutally murdered, rather than an animal that over 99% of the ‘bereaved’ had previously never even heard of.
Unfortunately that is the world we live in today, where ‘armchair outrage’ is everywhere and every edition of the Guardian ushers in a new cause du jour. Social media has made us lazy. We no longer try to be the catalysts of the change we want to see (sorry, Mahatma) - it’s far easier to sit back, feign shock and distress on the internet, and hope that someone else takes the lead. We live in the era of reactionary politics, where the public are happy to support a cause from the comfort of their front room, but few are prepared to be proactive about it. This point was made by several writers, all far more worldly than I, after the legalisation of gay marriage in America. Whilst it was heartening to see so many people showing their support for the issue with rainbow-filtered profile photos, it raised an important question. How many of those supporters actually lifted a finger to ensure that gay marriage became legal? How many wrote to their congressman, marched in protests, and were generally proactive about it? I would wager less than 1%. Yet they were happy to illustrate their approval via the medium of social media. Why? Because they wanted their peers to perceive them as ‘good people.’
It’s the same underlying psychology that lurks behind the never-ending stream of clickbait posts on Facebook. We’ve all experienced multiple iterations of ‘if this post gets 100,000 likes then little Johnny gets a new kidney’ clogging up our timelines. At heart we know they are complete and utter tosh - there is no Johnny, and certainly no kidney for him - yet we insist on sharing so that others think we care. Even the language is self-congratulatory: many of these dreadful pieces of spam start with ‘I bet no one else will dare to share this’ or ‘few will be brave enough to post this.’ By using such ‘rebellious’ terminology, the author, and therefore the poster, wishes us to believe that by having a generic, socially acceptable opinion on a modern day issue, we are somehow evoking the spirit of the Suffragettes or the Million Man March. That is simply not the case. All that sharing these obvious cries for attention achieves is the massaging of the sharer’s moral ego. It does not affect the real world one iota, nor does it bear any positive influence on those for whom that particular issue is a real-life problem.
Which brings us back to Cecil the Lion. We need to talk about Cecil. We need to have a constructive conversation about illegal big game poaching and corruption in the African wildlife industry. What we don't need is hordes of momentary activists having a whinge, and changing their Facebook profile photos in solidarity with a dead animal. It’s time for some home truths. If you’re really upset about an issue, get off your backside and do something about it. Don’t sit at home and pretend that you care more about a dead lion than about other people’s perception of you. It’s not activism to live out your social crusade online: it’s narcissism.