Sympathy for Cecil, #BlackLivesMatter, and ecofeminsm

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::love:: by Chrissy Wainwright via Flickr under CC2.0

I kicked off my environmental ethics class this semester with a discussion on Cecil the Lion and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I added this to a primer exercise during which I ask students, what about non-human nature triggers our moral sensibilities? It was a difficult but interesting discussion to have on the first day. What follows is an attempt to develop some of my reflections on this exercise, especially regarding the role that sex, gender, and race played in the viralized Cecil narrative.

For the past month, I’ve been anxiously following the internet’s response to the death of Cecil the Lion. My attitude has ranged from fascination to horror. I was especially moved by the following tweet by Roxane Gay, author of the NY Times best seller, The Bad Feminist:

I’m still trying to figure out how to be good at Twitter, and this, I think, is Twitter done well.

Gay raises a critical question: How did the death of a lion attract so much sympathy, outrage, and effort so quickly in a time when many innocent black men, women, and children are being killed by police officers? Walter Palmer, the American dentist who paid to hunt and kill Cecil, had his felony records exposed and was forced to shutter his dental practice due to a deluge of protesters and angry Yelpers. Jimmy Kimmel, visibly choking up with emotion, urged his viewers to contribute to the Wildlife Conservation Research Fund in a segment of his show dedicated to Cecil. The clip went viral. All of this happened within 24 hours of identifying Palmer as the killer. Donations to the fund netted over $150k in the 24 hours following Kimmel’s emotional plea for contributions. Within a week, three major airlines (Delta, American, and Continental) announced that they would no longer transport ‘big game trophies’.

By contrast, it took over six months to bring charges against Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice, an unarmed 12-year old.

Many find this disparity deeply frustrating, and understandably so. Some commentators issued pleas in the key of an inter-species egalitarianism: Why compete for the most-oppressed award? Humans and non-humans are both targets of violence and harm. But in context, this message sounds too much like a version of the #AllLivesMatter rebuttal, a tone deaf argument that quickly fell flat to my ears.

A sort-of parody, #AllLionsMatter, even trended for a few days, offering a new way to mock a naive, color/species-blind commitment to equality.Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 9.04.33 AMCertainly the structure of privilege and power that allows humans to hunt and kill animals parallels that which allows white officers to so carelessly kill people of color, writes Lori Gruen in Al Jazeera. Carol J. Adams, famous ecofeminist and animal rights advocate, even tweeted about Gruen’s article:

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 4.10.04 PM

This strikes me as true, but it leaves my initial question unresolved. Big game hunting isn’t an incredibly rare activity, so what was special about Cecil? What about this event so quickly grabbed and held the internet’s attention, and moved so many to act so swiftly? Any why haven’t we seen a popular parallel response regarding the many human lives lost? Clearly there isn’t a single answer, and I’d like to avoid the obvious ones (it’s easier to question the character and responsibility of humans, but not animals; Cecil has a name, but so does Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin.., etc.). I’d like to wager a response that uses some conceptual tools I recently picked up from Adams.

Disclaimer: This is not an argument in favor of giving Cecil equal (or unequal) standing to human lives. It’s merely an attempt to explain the resonance of this story through a culture that appears to be more sympathetic to lions than people.

The night before our first meeting of the semester, I finished reading Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat. When I rewatched the Kimmel clip with my students as part of the above-mentioned exercise, I noticed that Adams’ work helped elucidate a powerfully gendered subtext to the Cecil narrative. I assured the class we would have to come back to Kimmel after our ecofeminist readings later in the semester. At any rate, I knew I had to write about it to get my thoughts in order. Here is the clip:

I think this Kimmel clip may be how Cecil first captured my attention one morning when I was scrolling bleary eyed through my Facebook feed while feeding on my breakfast. The story certainly had other outlets, but I think Kimmel played a big role in amping up the message. Here’s why.

First, the low-hanging fruit. Kimmel is a man who showed emotion against his will on national television. Men, of course, are not supposed to do that. Not on TV, not alone, not ever. Emotion interjects itself into Kimmel’s monologue for less than 5 seconds — a quivering voice, a few nervous glances off camera — but the intensity of those 5 seconds is enhanced by gender. A man becoming weepy against his will signals a strong emotional event. Test this thought by changing the speaker’s gender: Would the plea have raised as much money or attention if Kimmel had been a woman? Would a clip of a woman tearing up over Cecil had gone viral? If so, I suspect it would have taken more than 5 seconds to make an equivalent impact.

Second, Kimmel uses gender to taunt and sanction Palmer. The teasing made me uncomfortable when I first saw it back in July. At best, it’s sophomoric and reminiscent of Kimmel’s time as co-host of The Man Show — yeah, I did my best to forget about that blemish in Comedy Central’s history too. But now that I was armed with Adams, I asked myself, how does gender amp up sympathy for Cecil?

Adams develops a conceptual tool, the absent referent (2000, pp. 52ff), that is helpful here. Animals are the absent referent in meat eating. We change the way we talk about a pig by calling it ‘pork’ or ‘bacon’, or a cow by calling it ‘beef’ or ‘hamburger’. Adams claims that violence against animals and women are linked through this same structure of the absent referent:

Just as dead bodies are absent from our language about meat, in descriptions of cultural violence women are also often the absent referent. Rape, in particular, carries such potent imagery that the term is transferred from the literal experience of women and applied metaphorically to other instances of violent devastation, such as the ‘rape’ of the earth in ecological writings of the early 1970s. The experience of women thus becomes a vehicle for describing other oppressions. Women, upon whose bodies actual rape is most often committed, become the absent referent when the language of sexual violence is used metaphorically. These terms recall women’s experiences but not women. (pp. 53-4)

In other words, we often describe violence against nature in terms that recall violence against women; when we do so, we refer to women implicitly, who thereby explicitly remain absent. With the concept of the absent referent in mind, let’s return to Kimmel’s taunting. He suggests that Palmer needs to hunt in order to – ahem – perform sexually: ‘Is it that difficult for you to get an erection that you need to kill things that are stronger than you?’ Here a violent act of sport, hunting, becomes a substitute for sexual potency. adamsKimmel emasculates Palmer by challenging his potency. It’s then important that Kimmel slips in a Cosby joke. If hunting is Palmer’s cure for erectile disfunction, then taking a pill is the better choice if he wishes to avoid ‘becoming the most hated man in America who never advertised Jello pudding on television.’

The logical structure of these jokes imply that hunting Cecil was an act of sexual violence. We ‘hate’ Cosby because he drugged and raped women, and we ‘hate’ Palmer because he took advantage of Cecil. Palmer will probably brag with his male buddies over his conquest, Kimmel goes on, the evidence of which is his trophy. The jokes sanctions Palmer, who transgressed the acceptable boundaries for expressing his masculinity. A man is shaming another man as if he had committed an act of sexual violence against a woman. Therefore, woman is the absent referent in the outrage over Cecil’s death, at least in the narrative Kimmel constructs through his jokes.

How is a lion, especially a male lion, feminized? There is danger in hunting lions and other large animals since they have the potential to kill humans. Goodwell Nzou, native Zimbabwean, writes in the NY Times that lions and other wild animals are considered ‘objects of terror’ by those who live near them. Children are trampled to death protecting crops from elephants and buffalo. The author himself lost part of his leg to a snakebite as a child. Nzou parallels my question, how can lions attract more sympathy than African lives? He writes, ‘please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.’ (For more about how western brands of conservationist environmentalism are blind to their own privileges, see also Guha 1998.)

Lions can be very real threats, but Cecil was never a threat to Palmer. The dentist and his guides lured the lion out of a protected area using bait tied to a jeep. They then exposed him with a spotlight so they could attack. In this sense, Palmer took advantage of Cecil, who in different circumstances, would have made a dangerous encounter. Palmer’s hunting techniques aimed to neutralize any threat the lion might have posed. If the dentist had nearly died during the hunt, the narrative would have been completely different. Kimmel’s jokes would have seemed out of place if the lion were a threat and not a victim.

Finally, I would like to briefly extend this notion of feminization and threat to the BLM movement. Fallon is challenging another man for taking advantage of a ‘woman’. This is a powerful narrative, well ingrained in our culture. Cecil accords with the bad-men-take-advantage trope, while BLM is in contention with the black-as-threat trope.

In order to feel sympathy for Cecil, you must not consider him a threat, as Nzou points out. So what does that say about the different reactions to Cecil and to those deaths highlighted by BLM?

In this photo from Ferguson a team of heavily armed police are reacting to an unarmed black man holding his hands up. At least three rifles appear ready to fire. The military-style green camouflage of the police uniforms is radically incongruent with the urban backdrop; failing to camouflage, its only purpose can be to signal force, power, and violence. This display in turn is radically incongruent with the single man, arms raised in surrender. Written on a nearby mailbox is ‘Fuck the Police’.

During the events in Ferguson, a white officer was caught animalizing protesters (‘Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!’) There is a long history of animalizing minorities in order to de-humanize them. Women and minorities are both animalized through the metaphorical power of language, but there is an important difference. Animalizing women transforms them into objects (pieces of meat, helpless subjects of violence). Likewise, Cecil was a dangerous animal feminized, transformed into a passive victim of male violence. But when minorities are animalized, it often transforms them into potentially dangerous animals (angry, irrational, violent, destructive, base, unpredictable, criminal). One’s response is to protect and sympathize with the former, while needing protection from the latter. The former kind of animalization demands a careful touch, while the latter justifies violence. In animalizing people of color, the dangerous lion is cast as the absent referent.

So another way to understand the sympathy for Cecil is by asking who felt threatened by those who lost their lives. Police violence can be rationalized — by the public as well as by the officers themselves — if policing involves encounters with the unpredictable, the dangerous, the animal. Often it does. But when patterns emerge that reveal lethal police violence is applied unjustly more often to persons of color, then it becomes more and more clear that policing protects some more than others.

The above photo from Ferguson almost acts as a litmus test. ‘Fuck the Police’ is either read as a threat to safety or a protest against a unjust, irrational, powerful beast. Who is the perceived threat in this situation? Whose death inspires sympathy? Who plays the role of the lion, with claws out ready to strike? Which threat are we more likely to encounter in our own daily routines? Who is cast as dangerous in the narratives we rehearse and the jokes we tell?

Non-web References

  • Adams, Carol J. 2000. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-vegetarian Critical Theory. 20th Anniversary Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Guha, Ramachandra. 1986. ‘Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique’. In Environmental Ethics 11 (1): 71-83.

Joining ISU Philosophy Faculty

It is with great pleasure that I announce (what has already been announced elsewhere) that I am joining the Department of Philosophy at Illinois State University as assistant professor on the tenure track. I’m thrilled to be joining such a talented team of philosophers and teachers with interdisciplinary interests that connect them to other departments; such as women and gender studies and biology. I will be teaching course and continuing my research at the intersection of philosophy and the minor program in environmental studies, which I’ve been asked to help grow.

So far the transition from Brooklyn to Central Illinois has been relatively seamless. I have to thank my friends and colleagues (new and old) for that. They have already introduced me to a network of scholars working on environmental-philosophical issues in the area.

Parting with my NYC friends colleagues, especially my friends and students at Pratt where I taught for nearly 8 years, brought many mixed emotions. I am thankful that the world wide web makes it easy to continue working on the collaborative projects with which I became involved before leaving.

The biggest change is probably transportation. I will be taking public transit, walking, and biking much less. I will rely on a car to commute to work. However, I’m happy to say that I found Prius that gets really great mileage and is almost like a game to drive. The feedback on your efficiency is immediate and the record keeping feature makes improvement an ongoing challenge. Our place is within walking distance of a range of amenities, including at least two grocery stores, a coffee shop, a mall, and variety of restaurants. But it is obvious that the area was not designed with pedestrians in mind. Sidewalks end mysteriously and crosswalks are only for certain sides of intersections.

My classes begin in just a few days and I am eager turn my thoughts from unpacking boxes to thinking again about democracy, ethics, and the environment. I will post updates when I have the chance.

Going Fossil Free (forthcoming book chapter)

My paper “Going Fossil Free: A Lesson in Climate Activism and Political Responsibility” will appear in Handbook of Climate Change Research at Universities: Addressing the Mitigation and Adaptation Challenges, ed. W. Leal Filho (Spring, forthcoming).

Abstract   Colleges and universities already contribute significantly to the fight against climate change, but the UN has recently called upon them to do even more. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that institutions of higher education play a unique role in combatting climate change and other structural injustices, not only by conducting research and disseminating knowledge, but also by fostering a form of collective political responsibility. A philosophical analysis of different forms of collective responsibility, with specific attention to the Fossil Free divestment movement, reveals how social position facilitates this contribution more so in colleges than in other institutions.

Keywords  Climate change, collective responsibility, fossil fuel divestment, student activism

You can read a draft here. I’ll be presenting a version of this paper at a symposium in Manchester Metropolitan University this September.

Sharing Responsibility to Divest (forthcoming article)

I’m happy to announce that one of my articles has been accepted for publication in Environmental Values:

“Sharing Responsibility to Divest from Fossil Fuels”

Abstract: Governments have been slow to address climate change. If non-government agents share a responsibility in light of the slow pace of government action then it is a collective responsibility. I examine three models of collective responsibility, especially Iris Young’s social connection model, and assess their value for identifying a collective, among all emitters, that can share responsibility. These models can help us better understand both the growth of the fossil fuel divest movement and the nature of responsibility for collective action problems. Universities and colleges share a responsibility because they occupy similar positions of, among other things, power and privilege.

Keywords: climate change ethics; divestment; collective responsibility; Iris Young; social connection responsibility; group agency

Thanks to everyone who offered comments on drafts. You can read a version of the article here.

Divestment: Useful Strategy or Distraction?


I’m recovering today from the overstimulating AESS 2016 conference hosted by American University in Washington DC. Scholars from nearly every discipline, EPA advisors, and NGO leaders all met to discuss the world’s most pressing environmental issues and to share their research with one another. The highlights included a walking tour of DC urban farms, a visit to the national zoo, an environmental-education themed “game jam” organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a packed schedule full of a dozen or more concurrent sessions.

I gave a paper titled “Sharing Responsibility to Divest” a version of which will soon appear in Environmental Values. I want to thank  Robert Brecha (Physics, University of Dayton) for developing the panel CFP, organizing, and chairing the session. Robert is Research Director for the Hanley Sustainability Institute. He assembled a truly interdisciplinary team that offered three very different perspective on the topic; however, despite this difference, the consensus seemed to be decidedly in favor of divestment.

Rebecca C. Potter (English, University of Dayton) gave a paper called “The Story of Divestment: Narrative Practices that Work.” Abigail Abrash Walton (Environmental Studies, Antioch University New England) gave a talk called “Organizational Leadership and Fossil Fuel Divestment: Exploring Positive Deviance and Proenvironmental Behavior.”

I encourage you to follow up on their work and to check out the UD HSI. Robert has written a HuffPo piece about UD’s wrestle with the divestment. He will also give a talk on the topic at the Association of American Colleges & Universities conference on the State of Higher Education conference next week on a panel titled “The Benefits of Going Fossil Free: Should the AAUP Endorse Campus Divestment?”

And for all my fellow game-nerds, I want to brag about scoring this Settlers of Catan expansion at the NOAA Climate Game Jam. It’s titled “Oil Spring” and it introduces oil as a resource, however, you have to be willing to risk polluting the island…  If anyone is interested in a putting together an idea for the next Game Jam, please send me a message!


Crash Course on the Ethics of Consumption

Pratt’s Center for Sustainable Design Strategies (CSDS) kicked off Green Week 2016 by offering its 6th annual Crash Course in Sustainability. Over 400 people registered for a full day of panels, workshops, screenings, and discussions. Faculty, students, and industry experts shared their passion and expertise for sustainability. For those who missed out, the whole event is available on the CSDS YouTube channel.

My talk was titled “Crash Course on the Ethics of Consumption.” I had the pleasure to present on a panel discussing Axiologue with one of its cofounders, Matt Nishi-Broach. Axiologue is a group dedicated to building an free, crowd-sourced, completely transparent ethical shopping app. You can download their Chrome extension Mindful Click from the Google Play store.

Watch video of the session below or view my Prezi slides and script at your own pace.

Mass shootings and collective responsibility

A portion of President Obama’s charged response to the recent mass shooting in Oregon invoked a collective, political responsibility. (Full transcript here.)

This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.

He goes on to draw a parallel between different types of laws that save lives, such as seat belt laws:

When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seat belt laws because we know it saves lives.

When a source of harm emerges as part of a predicable pattern — even ‘routine’ as Obama puts it — then the proper response is structural; laws have to change. The issue is no longer about individual responsibility, but a collective and shared responsibility. There is a slight difference, however, between seat belt and gun laws. Someone who refuses to wear a seat belt doesn’t harm me. Someone who owns an assault rifle can very easily harm me, my friends, my family, my colleagues, my students…

The President urged the press to publish facts that compare gun violence with other perceived threats so that American’s can make informed decisions when they elect their leaders.

[…] I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save lives, and to let young people grow up. And that will require a change of politics on this issue. And it will require that the American people, individually, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or an independent, when you decide to vote for somebody, are making a determination as to whether this cause of continuing death for innocent people should be a relevant factor in your decision. If you think this is a problem, then you should expect your elected officials to reflect your views.

I think that this is the correct direction, but only partially so. I want my neighbors, friends, and community to know — not only the ballot box — why I believe we would all be safer with less guns. In other words, we should be talking with one another as well as our representatives. Bad arguments should be addressed and flushed out. This is not merely a matter of personal choice or freedom when it affects so many lives so drastically and so routinely.

It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.

Australian comic, Jim Jefferies, does a good job of humorously addressing some bad reasons that float around for owning assault rifles. Laughter, I think, is not in disrespect of the victims or their families. This laughter comes from ridicule, and ridicule is often an effective, and even appropriate, response to poor reasoning that obstinately clings to itself despite the now routine mass killing of our fellow citizens.

Commuting by bike in NYC

So far this year, I’ve saved a considerable amount of money by biking to work, more than enough to pay for the bike and even a few upgrades. Money wasn’t my main motivation (though quite frankly, I’m just surprised at how quickly it added up). Rather, I was frustrated with the constant service changes and delays on my train line that left my mobility to the whims of the powerful and unappeasable subway gods. Also, my new full-time status at Pratt made biking an attractive option since it is actually faster than the subway.

Of course, as an environmentalist, I’m also interested in experimenting in lower-carbon lifestyles. Public transportation certainly trumps private automobiles, but the NYC DOT has seen the number of bikers increase 126% between 2007 and 2014. More bikers in the city means more bike-friendly infrastructure, which means biking becomes a more attractive alternative, and so on.

Brooklyn immediately shrinks once you hop on a bike. I love visiting new areas. We even made it to Rockaway Beach a few times this summer, which is a pleasantly flat 60 minute ride. It’s significantly less crowded than Coney Island or Brighton Beach.


How to bike to the beach with umbrella and beach chair

I thought I’d reflect on the privileges that allow me to have this experience, and to note some challenges that I’ve noticed bikers face.

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

The sweet part of my route.

First the privileges. I’m able-bodied and can fairly easily bike the 25-30 minutes between work and home. I live in New York City and can take advantage of its compressed space. Over time I was able to shift my route from the shortest to the safest. This means that most of my commute time is spent riding through Prospect Park (a great way to start the day). Finally, I have a secure place to store my bike at work and colleagues who are encouraging about my biking. Many of them also bike in.

Without any one of these advantages, riding to work would have been much more difficult.

Here are the challenges in no particular order. I think these are important to keep in mind if the city wants to encourage more people to use bikes.

  1. Grossly inadequate bike lanes. Some are so bumpy you’re likely to chip a tooth. You have to watch the road instead of what’s going on down the road, which is dangerous for everyone. Maintain the lanes.
  2. Cars. After one particularly close call, I opted for the longer, but safer route through the park. Build more bike lanes and build them in a way that protects pedestrians, bikers, and motorists.
  3. Inconsiderate and unsafe biking. Of course, it’s #NotAllBikers, but there are some terrible bikers, just as there are terrible motorists. As a percentage, I see more of the former than the latter. There should be more education about safe biking practices, and how to share the road, especially on bridges.
  4. Cops crack down on bikers instead of unsafe biking. I’m convinced the city hasn’t adequately figured out how to police the quickly growing number of bikers. Bikes are similar to cars in certain ways, but very different from cars in other ways. Treating them as equivalent is unsafe for everyone. Cops who police biking should probably be on bikes themselves and not in cars. I think this would give the officers better insight about safe and unsafe practices, infrastructure problems, and so on. All that being said, if I could only give one bit of policing advice to NYPD, it would not be about biking.

Admittedly, I miss reading on the train. But the extra exercise, contact with the morning air, and sense of freedom that comes with a bike all make a wonderful substitute.pp bike lane