I recently received a petition from Change.org asking people to sign in support of pressuring South African Airways to stop shipping slaughtered wildlife. Accompanying the email was a picture of Cecil the lion, the majestic African cat whose poaching by an American dentist was above-the-fold news for days. When I opened the email, scanned the headline and saw the picture, I did what I usually do when receiving a Change.org petition: I immediately signed it and with just one click of a checkbox, promoted the petition on my Facebook page.
I later noticed a friend had commented on my post and included a link to an article from The New York Times, “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions.” It was an Op-Ed piece by Goodwell Nzou, a doctoral student at Wake Forest University who grew up in Zimbabwe. When Nzou heard the news of Cecil’s death, his point of view was more relieved than mournful. “The village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine.”
As an African native, Nzou lived under the near-constant threat of a lion attacking someone he loved. His countrymen do not view lions the way many Americans do: as majestic creatures to be admired on nature specials or from the of a cage at the zoo. In Zimbabwe they are feared.
Nzou went on to reject the outpouring of sympathy that well-intentioned but uninformed friends and colleagues shared on social media about Cecil’s slaughter. “We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people,” Nzou wrote scathingly.
I thought about how social media has turned so many of us into knee-jerk reactionaries. Instead of hanging back to wait and see how a news story unfolds or to read the different perspectives and weigh them in our minds before forming a considered opinion, we instinctively cry foul. Although I haven’t changed my mind that an animal currently listed as vulnerable (just below “endangered” in terms of extinction risk) being lured away from a nature preserve is heinous, I wonder at my propensity to make snap judgments based on 140 characters and an ambiguous image.
My mother is currently serving grand jury duty, helping a group of her peers to decide whether a series of drug, theft, and assault cases should be brought to trial. Her civic responsibility is to carefully consider the facts as presented and to make a determination based on established laws. Although she has to make some swift judgments without knowing all the facts (since prosecutors must withhold any information that could be prejudicial), she tells me she feels the serious weight of her task, and that she tries to consider all the angles and question her assumptions before she reaches a conclusion.
That’s a far cry from my online behavior of late. In cases of knee jerk outrage, I am guilty—and I know I’m not the only one. Just like unconscious bias or anger, it’s natural for us to form a quick conclusion based on a snippet or a headline or an image—after all, with news often reported as it happens, opinions are being formed even while the story is still developing. Meanwhile Internet headlines are being carefully crafted to draw clicks, and the more controversial they are, the better. It’s no wonder that we react before we have all the facts. It takes a conscious effort to pause, step back, and think before we react.
On Salon recently, staff writer Mary Elizabeth Williams referred to our knee jerk judgments as “outrage overkill.” Williams cited a controversial story about actress Jennifer Beals, who left her dog in her car while she went to run an errand. People lashed out at Beals, calling her an animal abuser and worse. But left out of the original story? The window was partially rolled down, it was 73 degrees, and Beals was only gone for five minutes. But never mind. Opinions had already been formed and disseminated.
If, like me, the current media culture has led you to outrage overkill, try this. Next time you receive an online petition or see a Facebook headline that makes your stomach and fists clench, take a step back. Click off the story or email and wait a day. If the story really infuriates you, take the time to read more about it. Gather as many perspectives as you can, from a variety of sources, before deciding how you feel about it. If it’s that important to you then it’s worth your time to make sure you have an informed opinion.
—By Jennifer Campaniolo, Editor