People love to shame these days. They also love to shame the shamers. And with the tendency for the internet to get hysterical about anything that seems worthy of hysteria, we have turned our outrage to the recent poaching of a beautiful and famous African lion, named Cecil.
The entire world appears to be dividing into two camps: a) those who are outraged over the recent death of this beautiful beast, and b) those who think that the people being outraged over this beautiful beast makes you evil. There is, unfortunately, like most political issues, very little middle ground being sought. On one side, you have people calling for the death-by-hanging of the wealthy and unethical suburban dentist with a history of killing animals, both legal and illegal. On the other side, you have people who think that the real problem here is that people are talking about a lion when they should actually be talking about abortion (yep, that’s something that people are saying, including presidential hopefuls. I guess you have to say whatever it takes to be heard over the screaming of Donald Trump.)
And then you have all the sane voices, on both sides of the issue and in all the places in between, being drowned out by the hysteria.
When it comes to saner voices, there is one who I wish could still be here today: Kurt Vonnegut. He died a few years ago, but during his lifetime he consistently wrote intelligent, calm, thoughtful words about the things that troubled him and the things that faced society.
Did he shame? Yes, sure, of course he shamed. And yes, there was no Twitter or Yelp or Facebook in his day. But even then, he took more highbrow approaches. And yes, at one point he decided to shame big game hunters.
Specifically, he wrote a play in which the character was a blatant mockery of writer Ernest Hemingway. He began writing the play in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before Hemingway had taken his own life. Nearly a decade after Hemingway’s death, he returned to the play, “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” and it had its premier in 1970.
The opening line of this play is simple: “This is a simple minded play about men who enjoy killing – and those who don’t.” Vonnegut openly admitted that the anti-hero at the center of the play was inspired by Hemingway, referring to him in an introduction as “the slayer of nearly extinct animals which meant him no harm.”
The play opens with the Hemingway-esque character, long presumed dead after disappearing on a big game hunting trip, returning home to find that The Odyssey has begun to recreate itself in his living room as suitors pine after his presumed widow.
It’s worth reading, and it’s worth seeing, but it’s also worth discussing because, when compared to today’s antics, it takes on a new meaning. Where is the calm, leveled, intellectual discussion? Where is the argument without the name-calling? Where is the debate? Can we share an idea without pointing a finger? Don’t many of the angry and the rabid on both sides of this lion conversation call themselves Christians? To paraphrase Vonnegut, the only good idea that humanity has ever had is Jesus’s idea that the meek will inherit the earth. Is everyone screaming too loudly to hear what the meek have to say?
These are just questions. And sure, by the time a play is staged about the killer of Cecil the Lion, no one will remember that there ever was a lion. But maybe people on both sides of this issue, and every issue, should try taking a step back, breathing, and considering how silly they are making themselves look.
To quote Vonnegut again: “Gentleness must replace violence everywhere, or we are doomed.”