Americans care more about Cecil the lion (and dogs, too) than Syrian refugees

Yep, we care more about dogs in wheelchairs than actual suffering human beings.
Yep, we care more about dogs in wheelchairs than actual suffering human beings.
Image: Reuters/Peter Andrews
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As of Nov. 20, 2015, a petition to decisively punish the American dentist who killed an African lion named Cecil during a trophy hunting expedition had reached 1,354,294 signatures. As of the same date, a petition to merely appoint an independent prosecutor for the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police (not to adjudicate the case one way or the other) had 99,676 signatures. The writer Roxanne Gay painfully and insightfully quipped on Twitter: “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.” As Julia Craven and Kim Bellware wrote in the Huffington Post, “Social media response from white Americans has never been this intense for #BlackLivesMatter.”

More recently, the governors of at least 26 states in the US—a country founded as a haven for religious tolerance and asylum—have said they will refuse to accept the resettlement of Syrian refugees. This comes in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks that were apparently carried out entirely by French and Belgian citizens, not Syrian refugees. But right around the same time that Ohio governor and GOP presidential candidate John Kasich announced his state would join the list of states refusing to help those fleeing the violence in Syria, Ohio University—a public, taxpayer-supported institution—used its 3D printer to make a set of wheels for a puppy born without its front legs.  In fact, the university team involved pledged to help the puppy for life.

Currently, the most popular video on the Facebook page of the UN High Commission for Refugees is about a 17-year-old Syrian refugee who fled the country carrying his pet dog.

In case you think the idea that Americans care about animals than humans is just incendiary speculation, there’s actual research to prove it. Northeastern University sociologists Arnold Arluke and Jack Levin conducted a study in which subjects read news accounts about a crime wave in Boston. The news story would read something like: “According to witnesses present, one particularly vicious assault involved a one-year-old puppy that was beaten with a baseball bat by an unknown assailant. Arriving on the scene a few minutes after the attack, a police officer found the victim with one broken leg, multiple lacerations, and unconscious. No arrests have been made in the case.”  There were four variations on the (fake) news story in the study, portraying four different kinds of victims: a puppy, an adult dog, a human infant and a human adult. After reading the news story, subjects would complete a testing scale measuring empathy and emotional distress.

The results? According to Arluke and Levin’s research, Americans care about actual human babies the most, followed by puppies and then adult dogs. Adult humans come in last. 

This is particularly disturbing when you bear in mind other studies show people generally overestimate the age of black boys and view them as less innocent than whites. The police who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice thought he was 20.  (As the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association president Steve Loomis put it, “He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.”)

Research also suggests that we’re twice as likely to give money to save a dog than to save a dying child.

Terrorism and murder are deeply, inherently dehumanizing acts but we also have to face our own lack of humanity in the face of such violence. At least 130 people were killed in the Paris terrorist attacks that have captivated the West’s attention. But ISIL and the broader civil war in Syria have killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions. The refugees seeking asylum are also victims of ISIL, but the US is not only turning our backs on them, it’s alienating them with anti-Muslim rhetoric and suspicion. According to a new poll, most Americans now support blocking Syrian refugees—or at least those who aren’t Christian. Can you imagine us reacting the same way if millions of white French people were fleeing violence? Or, for that matter, millions of puppies?

It seems incongruous in our perpetual outrage culture to be outraged by our lack of outrage but there you have it. Our human priorities are inhumane. We need to think more and care more about our fellow human beings, whatever their age and nationality and religion. Consciously spreading that kind of open-hearted, open-minded humanity is the best way to combat the narrow-minded, intolerant inhumanity that fuels anti-black violence, ISIL and so much other evil.