“L” is for Lemmings

Popular Science Monthly, Volume 11, August 1877

Everything I know about lemmings, I learned today, in fact, just…before…now.

Everything I knew before this was…apparently…wrong.

I wanted to know, were they more prone to group conformity than humans. So far, there are no signs that they are.

Contrary to popular belief, lemmings do NOT naturally run off of cliffs. It’s more than a lie. It’s murder.

Now, for the sad part.

Years ago, some lemmings slipped over the edge. They weren’t rowdy while at Cliffchilla (for you Euro folk, Lemmingsbury), but someone observed this behavior and the suicide rumors took hold. In reality, in the process of migration, they may have jumped or slipped into the water. They can swim short distances, so it’s since been concluded they may have been trying to swim away.

The underlying problem here was that lemming populations fluctuate dramatically, and people did not know why.

The same thing happened with oysters in the New York estuary system and in San Francisco Bay, too, and yet no one accused oysters of suicide for drinking the silted and polluted waters which killed them. Likewise, we know when someone is crushed by the crowd at a packed stadium at a World Cup match, this is not considered suicide and, instead, cruel fate.

The myth that lemmings willingly committed suicide took hold, despite a lack of evidence, and persisted. Eventually, it overwhelmed scientific observation. Lacking good answers, people focused on the best story and laughed at the folly of small rodents, a laugh that continues misinformed to this day.

In time, filmmakers made a movie titled White Wilderness, released by Disney, and in that film, they included a sequence which shows the lemmings “killing themselves” by falling off of a cliff.

The problem is, it is both wrong and cruel.

I am NOT a Disney fan. I have not forgotten what they did to Bambi and how I wet my pajamas in the back of our station wagon at the drive-in movie. The idea that they would kill Bambi’s mother and show children what they had done was horrifying to me. How could they?

It turns out, truth is worse than fiction.

The 1958 film in which they featured lemmings running over the cliff was not shot on location. Lemmings, the unpaid extras in this unusual snuff film, failed to willingly run over the cliff: they were forced over. They were flown by plane to the location, were not native to the cliff from which they “leapt,” we’re conveyed to their deaths by a device which forced them to fall. Though able to swim, like mudhens, I imagine it was a panicky matter not best done under sudden anxiety and threat. Instead they drowned. The original documentary (an excerpt of which is seen in the rebuttal below) opens with this comment from narrator Winston Hibler:

“In this land of many mysteries, it’s a strange fact that the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creatures.”

Lemmings are probably less likely to kill themselves than humans. Their numbers wax and wane for a variety of reasons unrelated to their mental health. The myth lingers on.

What I wonder about was why no-one on the film crew said, “Wait. This is wrong” or “This is cruel” or, at minimum, “These darn lemmings just don’t feel like jumpin’ today.” Forcing lemmings to go over the cliff just to be right is deception at best and animal cruelty at worst. Don’t take me on faith here–see for yourself what’s been revealed about the film White Wilderness and the lemmings’ suicide.

By the same token, a myth exists among some writers: I must platform and remind my audience about me many times each day or they will forget me.


I repeat here that quote from Winston Hilber: “In this land of many mysteries, it’s a strange fact that the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creatures.”

It is a legend that it works to assail an audience with our posts. For most people, such practices force us to pick our way through our feeds and emails avoiding such posts like a dangerous drunk we spy in the park.

Ask, then, if an extra post:

  • is wrong
  • is cruel
  • is unwelcome

In other words, are we treating our readers like lemmings?

As attenuated as our connection may be to our audience, our audience is far from stupid. They are not short on memory or disinclined to make note of that which matters to them. Above all, they owe us nothing. What they are is short on precious time.

When we blindly follow dictates which say we “must” do certain things as writers, we should consider their underpinnings first and ask, “Who stands to gain by me agreeing with this point of view?” Possibly the answer is “No one.”

Most experts who advise about writing know that very few people will actually follow that good advice, even when they pay for it. Experts are paid many times over to tell people things those same people have heard before and won’t actually do.

What I find when I examine the advice of experts is that most of the experts will tell you some variant on these truths:

  • Be yourself.
  • Don’t write for the money alone.
  • Treat people with respect.

I’ll leave you with a final thought about White Wilderness and based on the wildlife film industry, which was rocked in 1984 by a CBC documentary titled Cruel Camera.  It pertains to the treatment of the lemmings. This quote comes from the book Image Ethics in the Digital Age:

Cruel Camera (1984) exposed a number of cases of mistreatment of animals by leading wildlife filmmakers and television producers, and suggested (accurately) that such practices were still widespread. Although aimed at exposing outright cruelty, Cruel Camera also suggested that staging, manipulation, and general fakery were just as widespread…the evidence suggested not only that audiences had for some time been systematically deceived, but that their sympathies had been manipulated, their trust abused, and their faith betrayed.” – Gross and Katz

Nobody is fooled. Readers are clever. They may not smell a lemming but they’ll certainly sniff out a rat.

10 Replies to ““L” is for Lemmings”

  1. I’m actually just a little bit floored! Not shocked at the reprehensible machinations of corporate sensation-creation, but lemmings…! All this time…! We’ve been so wrong about them! They’ve been so misjudged! I am on a mission, galvanized by this post, to help rehabilitate the image of lemmings.

    Really cool post. It’s important for us writers, I think, to be on guard against (a) being the stereotypical lemming and (b) treating our readers as if they were the stereotypical lemming. And plus I really love the picture up at the top, because wildlife.

  2. What a wonderfully well-written post. Reading about the lemmings made me so sad. I can’t (yes, I can) believe they were intentionally murdered. You’re right about writing. Be yourself. If you are, then you’ll gain a following. Plus, in my view writing every day helps.

  3. Oh my, I’ve been mis-judging lemmings all this time. Until I read your post in fact. Thank you.
    I also absolutely the design of your blog – it looks like a magazine front cover filled with lots of good things to read. You know I’m going to be looking for a way to re-design mine, and I’ve barely got started with it!

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