The Lion, the Myth, and the Morality Tale

Hype and myth are loaded themes that go hand in hand. Once something is mythologized, it’s easy to go overboard about it. Meanwhile, look at something that garners a strong reaction, and you may be able to explain it with myth.

Enter Cecil the lion and the reaction to his death.

Yet to the July 29 demonstrators outside of Dr. Walter Palmer’s dental clinic--twenty minutes from where I live and to many of the thousands of people who have called and written angry rants on a variety of websites, this really wasn’t about the death of one lion -- or his cubs. Nor was this about the well-being of the people of Zimbabwe. Points such as these have simply been used to defend, justify, explain or even mask the actual foundation and motivation of their anger.

This is about human beings’ susceptibility to mythology -- and the actors who represent the good and evil in this morality tale of nature vs. man.

Once humans have their food, shelter, health and other basic needs met, they have the luxury of fighting for their worldview.

We all have a worldview or ideology that fits best with how we think and feel.

Some of these ideologies are summed up politically: conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism. Some are better explained in narrative: the Randian innovator going up against the stifling government, the Erin Brokovich-type employee taking on a giant corporation, or the rich American hunter killing an innocent lion.

For many, these stories best hit home not as documented history, but as resonance with our spirit of right and wrong. To narrate life requires the greys within to be divided into black and white. Erin Brokovich = good. Corporation = bad. Now we have ourselves a morality tale, a myth, good vs evil. Star Wars, James Bond, Lord of the Rings.

In the case of Cecil the lion, many people accept the mythological narrative of the exploitative American killing the defenseless creature. This is why people are so upset. This event, to them, is good vs evil.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with myth and symbolism. They are emotional-mental tools used to categorize our world, to seek its improvement, to add meaning, to sink our emotional teeth into life and cultivate richness around our experience. Epic is awesome.

It was awesome for those who cried when seeing Barack Obama elected because of the interpreted representative step forward and victory of our nation. It’s awesome to feel moved by the sight of an animal that represents and elicits majesty. And it’s awesome to find other like-minded folks and bond in celebration or fight for a better world.

But there’s a risk.

To the degree that we subscribe to a particular ideology is the potential for us to color the events of our world with its tint. Suddenly we have something invested into these events -- our world view, our ego -- and exaggerated responses result. We’ll fight to defend our ideology, details and facts be damned. Get with like-minded folks, and you can create a mob.

Reality isn’t a morality tale. Yet to these protesters, Cecil the lion wasn’t a lion. He was “good.”

Palmer wasn’t the man who shot the lion. He was “evil.”

And that’s all there is to it.

Walter Palmer protesters

Neglecting facts in favor of the emotions of myth and succumbing to its pull can misalign ourselves with decency.

Mayans sacrificed people at the altar of their god. Puritans killed women believed to be witches. Things have improved today, but we’re yet kicking the can down the road as protesters fighting for Cecil -- fighting for good -- stood in front of a sign directing a fellow human to “Rot in Hell.” Go to Palmer’s dentistry Yelp review page for more examples of people fighting for good.

Less extreme, but just as telling, is their demand that Palmer be extradited to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has one of the worst recent records of human rights, run by a man responsible for countless deaths. Palmer could be killed.

Doesn’t matter.

A fellow human’s suffering is outweighed by an ideological-driven person’s need to have the world act in accordance to his/her worldview. And much of what is stated to explain such anger is mere decoration:

  • Cecil’s cubs will now be killed, they say. Yes, they will. Just like the cubs Cecil killed; just like his cubs would have whenever his eventual death occurred.
  • This hurts the Zimbabwean economy, they say. It may, but insignificantly. The average Zimbabwean has already had their comforts decimated by the policies of their government. Working just to get food, shelter, and fend off disease, the vast majority of Zimbabweans don’t have the luxury to fight for ideology, a plight that until a lion was killed most protesters knew nothing about.

Undoubtedly, there are other factors at work: the accepted bigotry toward rich white men; the bubbles we put ourselves in, ignorant of the circumstances of the hunt or the conditions in Zimbabwe; a media feeding the narrative constantly referring to Cecil as “beloved” when not one outlet mentions who actually loved this lion; the modern movement of “social justice warriors” out to attack anything that offends them.

But the underlying factor is myth and the lens of the morality tale.

My hope for Palmer is that he can understand this, that though the insults and attacks are directed toward him, he knows that the angriest people aren’t angry at him so much as afraid of losing the epic battle of this perceived morality tale.

My hope for the protesters is that they become aware of how much they’ve succumbed to this tendency to mythologize and take too seriously one’s ideology.

My hope for the U.S. justice system is that they aren’t too influenced by the mob and hype too put a human’s life at risk.

Myth is a powerful force that colors our world in amazing ways.

We just have to be careful not to get carried away and forget the reality (and our humanity) beneath.