Sentimental outrage is hard to distinguish from empathy for others
If you visited Oslo earlier this summer, you might have met a celebrity walrus named Freya. Freya showed little fear of humans, and charmed the public with her antics; dozing, chasing ducks, and reducing boats to splinters as she heaved herself out of the water to sunbathe. Crowds gathered wherever she stopped on her tour of the coast, and she allowed them to approach and take photos or even swim in the water with her.
Sadly, Freya was put down on Sunday, after officials decided that her close encounters with the public were unacceptably risky. Walruses are wild animals, weighing around a ton. While it is rare for them to attack humans, a stressed or over-friendly walrus could kill a person alarmingly easily — as in fact happened at a Chinese zoo in 2016.
Was there really no option other than killing Freya? Apparently not: it seems moving her would have been prohibitively difficult, and evidently people could not be trusted to keep a safe distance. Those responsible judged it was not a risk they were willing to take.
Predictably, there are some who vehemently disagree with this assessment. Frank Bakke-Jensen, the Norwegian fisheries director, has reportedly received death threats from around the world after announcing the decision.
I don’t know whether I agree with the call that was made. But the decision was not my responsibility. If a child had been crushed or drowned, I wouldn’t have been the one apologising to the parents — and neither would any of the people currently harassing Mr Bakke-Jensen.
Difficult choices like this invariably seem to attract waves of sentimental outrage. Take the now infamous case of Harambe the gorilla, shot and killed to protect a three-year-old boy who fell into his enclosure in Cincinnati zoo in 2016. Or Geronimo, the alpaca who was euthanised last year after testing positive for bovine TB, but not before 140,000 people signed a petition urging Boris Johnson to intervene to save him. I doubt any of the people loudly horrified by either decision would be queuing up to take responsibility for the spread of a serious infection, or for the death of a toddler at the hands of a gorilla.
These cases attracted enormous international media attention. There are 30,000 walruses in the north Atlantic. Caring for this population and its habitats is ultimately more important than the life or death of one walrus. But the public have been much less interested in the way, say, oil and gas exploration harms these animals in the long-run than the bitter arguments over Freya in recent days.
This tendency towards outrage is even worse when it attaches itself to human, rather than animal, tragedy. In unutterably painful cases where a judgement is made to withdraw life support from a child, rather than give the family privacy, onlookers flock like vultures to offer their two cents or send abuse to the medics involved.
There’s something ghoulish in these loud emotional displays from people who are ultimately not the ones affected. Feeling pain for the fate of an unrelated person or animal is widely regarded as a moral good. But when this develops into righteous anger (“the most delicious of moral treats”); when it’s not tempered by reason; when it’s indulged at the cost of those involved; then it’s not moral. It’s selfish.