Lion hunts and other things we don’t like

Sarah Britten on how otherwise rationale people behave and mobilise when they’re happily “outraged”…

All of us have that button. That thing that makes us see red, the thing we hate, which if we were in charge we’d ban immediately.

In the past, people in power have been deeply offended by the notion that anyone who wasn’t white and male could have the vote. That gay couples could marry. That women could choose to terminate a pregnancy or take contraceptives. There are still many people offended by all of these things. We should be grateful that they do not get to enforce their personal preferences on the rest of us.

And yet, when it comes to certain issues, the state of being offended seems to be regarded as some sort of protected condition, which justifies immediate action from the government and an online petition because OUTRAGE and launching of countless mindless epithets in social media.

Take trophy hunting. I dislike hunting of any kind and always have. But I recognise that it has a role in conservation — specifically the preservation of habitat — and so long there is no unnecessary cruelty and the practice is sustainable and contributes in some way to biodiversity, my personal feelings have no bearing on whether or not hunting is permitted. The world isn’t the way I want it, and I have to accept that there are things that may be legal but which I don’t like.

Somehow, otherwise rational people involved in the outcry over Melissa Bachman and her lion trophy seems to have lost sight of that basic principle. I can’t stand people who pose with dead animals as though it’s some sort of achievement — have a look at this site if you really want to be offended (the dead royal antelope here really gets to me). But I find aggressively self-righteous individuals impervious to reason even more off-putting, and Twitter, Facebook and various blogs have been utterly saturated with them over the past few days.

Somehow, the dislike of hunting is a sort of immunity idol to cloak all sorts of other nasty little issues. Imagine, for a moment, if the insults here were directed at a woman who got an abortion. Misogyny and xenophobia are normally considered verboten, but attach them to hunting and it’s open season.

Can we at least be honest about the fact that this issue has nothing to do with conservation (lions hunted in South Africa now are almost all captive bred, unlike Botswana or Zambia) or cruelty — in the moments between becoming aware that he was being stalked by humans (a species he’d normally associate with regular deliveries of donkey meat) and the high caliber bullet that abruptly ended his life, that lion would have experienced a lot less in the way of stress than the average cow heading to an abattoir — and everything to do with symbolism? A woman proudly showing off a dead lion with a magnificent mane, the creature which for many embodies the idea of the nobility and moral purity of wild creatures.

Would the impact have been the same if she’d posed with a dead lioness? A jackal? A kudu? People are outraged because their sensibilities have been offended, not because this is objectively more egregious than any of the other terrible things that happen every single day. If there were consistency around this issue, we’d be far more incensed about bush meat, gin traps, the poisoning of vultures and other animals for muti and the appalling Bredell cull which allows farmers in the Western Cape, in theory, to shoot hundreds of thousands of animals classified as “vermin”.

I completely understand why people hate trophy hunting, and why the sight of a hunter posing with a dead animal is deeply offensive. I hate it too. But there are many things that would be forbidden if the people who are offended by them could have their way. We don’t ban all the things we don’t like because we recognise that we live in a world where we don’t always get what we want. In my perfect world, for instance, there would be no hunting, no abortion (and no unwanted children either), no porn, no mindless violence on TV, no promotion of empty consumerism at the expense of citizenship, no sexism, no junk food, no animal cruelty, no GMO, no factory farming and no ransacking of wildlife to satisfy the demands of consumers in the far east. But the world is not perfect. It is messy, chaotic and filled with compromise.

When it comes to the Melissa Bachman fracas, I think it would be a very good idea for everyone to dismount from their high horses — and perhaps, as Princess Anne has suggested, consider eating them.

– Britten is a WHAM! editor. This article first published on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader, 18 November 2013.