A few random thoughts on Cecil, @bittman, and chickens

I got into a mini-debate on the Twitters with @TrabiMechanic this morning about an article Mark Bittman wrote for Vox, “Eating Chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion.”  So I thought I’d write a blog post with a few more details and/or random thoughts about all this, and I thought I’d do it in the form of a blog post since, you know, 140 characters isn’t very much.

I’ll start off by quoting from the first couple paragraphs of Bittman:

If the outcry over the killing of Cecil the lion tells us anything, it’s that people are capable of genuine moral outrage at the needless killing of animals. And good for them. Animals are conscious beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain, and we have an obligation to make their lives as good as possible.

But in a given year, the typical American will cause the death of 30 land animals, and 28 chickens, by eating meat. And these animals aren’t just killed, they effectively live lives of constant torture and suffering — not directly at the hands of the people who eat them, but at the hands of the meat producers who sell them.

And then it goes on from there to talk about the evils of factory farming generally, etc.

Okay, a few thoughts as they occur to me:

  • That Vox article that is linked to in the Bittman piece, “Cecil the lion: The killing that’s enraged the internet, explained” gives a pretty good run-down of what happened and the debate around it, including (apparently) the debate as to whether or not regulated big game hunting is potentially a useful tool in the conservation of these animals. I don’t know enough about conservation to weigh in on that debate, though I heard a joke on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show that has a ring of truthiness to me that went sort of like this: If the number of a certain species in the wild does not exceed the number of seats in a large sports arena– say at least 50,000– then you shouldn’t be able to hunt it.
  • Two other rules of thumb: first, it’s probably a bad idea to hunt an animal that has a name, and it’s also probably a bad idea to hunt an animal that is (as described in that Vox article) sort of a beloved mascot. Maybe trophy hunter dentist Walter James Palmer didn’t know about all that, but I’ll bet his guides knew which lion he was shooting. I’ll come back to this issue in a moment.
  • Not that I have a problem with hunting generally– you know, deer, ducks, fishing, other things that people commonly kill for both sport and food. I eat meat so while I don’t think a whole lot of people in this country hunt only for food (for example, while the people I know who hunt deer typically have the animal butchered and made into tasty sausage and the like, I know that a lot of the reason they hunt is because “it’s fun”), I feel like it’s a little “holier than thou” for me to condemn hunters while I’m eating a porterhouse steak.
  • Speaking of eating meat:

Which is to say that not only do I eat meat, I also follow a lot of Mark Bittman’s recipes– which obviously include a variety of meats, including chicken. Granted, Bittman has also advocated pretty strongly for a “vegan before 6” sort of diet, which (when I can and when I’m paying attention) I try to follow as much as I can. Maybe more vegetarian before 6 than vegan, and hey, I just had some leftover chicken parmesan for lunch today, but still. And really, Bittman’s main complaint is factory farming, which is a legitimate problem that is hard for the average middle American consumer to avoid in any food product, including vegetables.

  • All of which is to say that I think the claim that eating chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion is specious at best. There are lots of things morally worse than killing Cecil the lion– to reference Godwin’s law for a moment, let me suggest that actions of the Nazis generally and Hitler in particular– and I think the connection between big game hunting and eating chicken is pretty non-existent. We could more easily talk about how this incident illustrates the problems of ongoing colonialism in Africa, about eco-tourism run amok, and about American/rich white guy privilege. And we could also talk a bit more about the demographics of the people on the Internets who are as or more upset about the killing of this lion than the murder of far too many African-Americans by police recently: that is, is it moral for people to be as or more outraged at the killing of this lion than Michael Brown?
  • Rhetorically, I find this an interesting exigency because of how it has been spread via social media and the like. For me, a lot of this has to do with rhetorical situation and my (long long ago) dissertation project on Immediacy, but it’s more than that too. I’m reading (and maybe teaching some of) Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which tells the story of several folks who have been shamed in different ways on social media. One of the more (in)famous stories is of Justine Sacco, who made a bad and insensitive joke on Twitter– “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”– and who was so ferociously attacked on social media that she really did pretty much have her life ruined. As far as I can tell, Ronson’s argument is that in the age of the internet, when such a public shaming can spread like a meme and frequently go way too far, there should be some kind of space or opportunity to forgive people for one bad mistake. Mostly, I agree with that, though there’s a big difference between Sacco and Palmer is that while she might have been stupid and insensitive, he might have broken the law, which is why Zimbabwe wants him back.
  • Anyway, if anything good comes out of this, I hope it’s more awareness that these two unrelated things, big game hunting and factory farmed chickens, are kinda bad.

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