I find myself thinking, more often than might be reasonable, about Cecil the Lion. It was only two years ago, if you remember. Two and a quarter years. Barack Obama was president; Donald Trump was a distraction before serious election politics began; nuclear war seemed extremely unlikely. The wildfires were burning but not everywhere all at once. No one, least of all Cecil the Lion, knew what was coming.
Not for nothing, a search online now for “Cecil the Lion” leads to a Wikipedia page with the title “Killing of Cecil the lion.” Lowercase L: The Wikipedians want you to be sure that his actual proper name was Cecil, just Cecil, his lionhood merely a clarifying appositive. The subject of the page is not the lion, but the gerund of the action a person did to the lion. It’s not about Cecil.
It never was about Cecil. The subjective experience of Cecil the Lion was inaccessible to human minds and was over, at any rate, by the time he became famous. He was dead. He was a pure representation of famousness — an internet celebrity — a cause and a parable.
Cecil the Lion symbolized the outrageous cruelty of humans toward animals. And the willingness of people to be outraged by people being more outraged about animals than about people. And he symbolized the depravity of the rich, and the misunderstood virtues of the rich, whose desire to kill large wild animals creates a market incentive for keeping wild spaces that can hold large animals. And he symbolized the predatory attitude of the global North toward Africa, and the condescending use of Africa as a staging ground for the moral dramas of the global North. And he symbolized the potency of internet vigilantism, as the dentist who killed him went into hiding.
Almost none of the reactions, as they mounted — in a positioning and repositioning that anticipated the stages of the cosmic-brain meme — had to do with the specific circumstances of the death of the individual lion. People had already shaped whatever arguments they wished to make, and the body of the lion seemed pliable enough to fit them.
In the middle of this extremely tense situation, a colleague of mine, Brendan O’Connor, wrote and published a joke online, on Gawker. It was part of a blog post about a follow-up story in the news cycle, in which reports had circulated claiming that the brother of Cecil the Lion had also been killed. (He had not.) The final version of the headline, nicely capturing the layers of confusion or misrepresentation surrounding it all, was “Researcher Disputes CNN’s Report on Death of Cecil the Lion’s Brother.”
The joke was tucked into the lead, between commas:
CNN reports that, according to a senior park official, Cecil the lion’s brother Jericho, who is also a lion, was killed on Saturday in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.
I thought it was a good gag. In fact: It is a good gag. I consider my opinion controlling on this one. It was a pleasing joke in bland newswriterese about the false intimacy and familiarity the world had decided to claim with the original dead lion — Cecil THE Lion, definite article, as if all the people expressing all the violent feelings online were doing it because they had known the deceased personally (leonally?) and had been thinking about him while he was still alive. Here was another dead, or purportedly dead, lion that no one had really heard of, prepared to become a new vessel for your concern.
The internet lost its mind. People screencapped the passage — mostly attributing it to CNN, not Gawker — and held it up for mockery, shout-typing at one another about the mind-boggling idiocy on display. Someone had actually, seriously thought it was necessary to specify that the lion’s brother was also a lion! What else could it be?? Unbelievable!!
And yet they believed. The joke was obviously not a joke but an act of sheer incompetence. The failure to acknowledge that the joke was an act of incompetence was an act of malfeasance. Someone had done a bad job and deserved to be punished for it.
To understand the social internet, and particularly Twitter, as an institution, it is helpful to think about public restrooms. Public restrooms are the sites of a widespread and serious misunderstanding, involving the ways that principles of human nature are experienced under modern conditions.
Public restrooms, as everyone knows, are often found in horrible condition — much, much worse than the condition of your own bathroom at home. It is true that more people use public toilets than home toilets, but then also cleaning crews come through the public ones more frequently. The greater volume of traffic cannot, on its own, explain how regularly and how shockingly the public fixtures end up bespattered.
For a user of public restrooms, then, the simple conclusion is that other people’s bodies and their functions must be much more disgusting than one’s own. But this is not correct. Public toilets are the way they are not because most other people, in general, can’t control their bodily functions. They are that way because, on any given day, the relatively small group of people who are struggling to control their bodily functions need to get to the nearest toilet, which is usually a public one.
This is the Grand Theory of Public Restrooms: Public restrooms are disgusting because they are, disproportionately, the place where people happen to have their most disgusting bodily experiences. What you see in a public reference doesn’t represent the way other people habitually are; it’s a sample of what happens to other people when they’re in unusual distress. The point of reference is not your own normal experience; it’s whatever happened to you during the worst digestive crisis of your life.
Twitter is a public toilet. People use it in distress, and when that distress is out of control, it becomes more visible. When you look at Twitter, you see things that are getting shared widely because they are bad or dumb or wrong. The strangers you encounter in your timeline are there largely because they have experienced their moment of maximum failure and misjudgment. You don’t see their regular tweets, because nobody bothers to share them.
As a result, you come away from Twitter — just kidding, you don’t ever come away from Twitter, you stay inside it — marveling at what shocking imbeciles the rest of the human race are. The world is full of incredible, toxic stupidity. You and your friends might be the only intelligent human beings on the planet.
(It’s true that the system is also set up to help you see unusually funny and successful jokes. Somehow, though, Twitter’s selection for good jokes doesn’t seem to convince people, by comparison, that maybe they’re not so funny. Maybe the thought is, “Wow, if one of these idiots got off a tweet this funny, I can definitely write one that’s even funnier.”)
This does not excuse or justify the worst of what happens online, any more than the memory of your worst food poisoning makes it okay that someone smeared feces on the wall of a stall with their hands. It simply provides a little perspective. The human race is terrible, but not that much more terrible, on average, than you are. If you have been on the combative internet, you have at some point thought you were better or smarter than someone else, when in fact you were being worse and dumber. If something is so outrageously stupid that you find it hilarious, consider the possibility that it was a joke.
Jokes are hard to make now, sometimes prohibitively hard. A joke relies on context, and the internet is a context-collapsing machine. Or, even worse, it’s also simultaneously a collection of context-creating machines, where people gather and form small habitats of mutual understanding, only to see them broken up and exposed to larger, unintended publics.
Some jokes deserve to be brought to daylight and crushed this way. The meme Nazis, with their supposed creed of shock for shock’s sake, turn out to be interpermeable with the old-fashioned kind of Nazis. The president’s “locker-room talk” about forcing himself on women was, according to substantial testimony, neither kept to the locker room nor kept to talk. Sometimes humor is just the word you use for what you can get away with.
But so is outrage. The difference is that while a joke may die of misunderstanding, an outrage will grow stronger. There is no such thing as being too dumb to get mad. If you don’t like the lion joke now, you can buy it and the rest of Gawker and remove it all from the internet. Factually, Gawker was killed by a billion dollars and a secret vendetta, but as a matter of public narrative, what killed us in the end was a badly timed wisecrack. A judge and jury, shown the most offensive material they could be shown, in the most offensive light, decided that they had been granted the rare and precious chance to hurt bad people, and they took it.
This is the toilet we all live in these days. Obtuseness and bad faith exist in mutual abundance; there’s no safe guessing which is which at any given moment. This past Fourth of July, NPR tweeted out the text of the Declaration of Independence, line by line. Immediately, there were tweets in response treating this as an obvious insult against Donald Trump. Were those tweets genuine? At least one of the most widely shared accounts seemed pretty clearly not to be. By then, though, the superior reaction to the reaction — who is also a lion — was underway. People were outraged by the show of outrage to what was at bottom an algorithmic broadcasting of archival text. Sincerity and intentionality arrived so late in the process as to be foolish and absurd. Nobody really meant anything until it was too late.