By Roberta Millstein
I'd been trying to grapple with the weeks and weeks of horrifying stories about the treatment of Black Americans at the hands of police, with Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose only the latest victims, when the story about Cecil the Lion hit social media. Some reacted angrily, frustrated that one lion was getting more attention than all the black women and men whose lives had been lost. Lori Gruen, however, responded differently:
Rather than pointing fingers at each other about inadequate or disproportionate grief at the deaths of some and not others, social justice activists might instead work to develop what political theorist Claire Jean Kim calls an “ethics of avowal.” In contrast to disavowal, the act of rejection or dissociation that often leads to perpetuating patterns of social injury, she suggests that we recognize the ways that our struggles are linked and to be “open in a meaningful and sustained way to the suffering and claims of other subordinated groups, even or perhaps especially in the course of political battle.” We should empathize with the pain and indignities of others who are disempowered and avow, rather than belittle, their search for justice.
This seemed so exactly right to me that I was surprised to see a number of commenters on the Feminist Philosophers blog voice strong disagreement. Stacey Goguen's early comment set the stage for much of the disagreement:
...you shouldn’t be leery of the mentality that suggests that if white people *IN LARGE NUMBERS* express more protest, visible grief, and visceral outrage over the unjust murder of a lion a continent away than they do over the unjust murder of people in their own country, that suggests that we, white people, do, as a group, care about and privilege one injustice more than another.
I think, however, that this misses the point. It may be true that, as Goguen suggests, that (many? most?) white people lack sufficient empathy for black lives. But insisting on expressing the truth of that statement – loudly, accusingly – is to miss Gruen's main point: "This is a convenient and distracting narrative that weakens efforts toward social change. Who benefits when those struggling for a better world end up fighting with each other? Those who would rather keep the world as it is in its non-ideal form — those who are unwilling to give up their gendered, racial power."
Is shaming people for caring about Cecil going to make them care more about black lives? That seems unlikely to me. Does it help the cause for social change, or rather does it hurt it? I think Gruen is right. I think it hurts the cause.
Gruen suggests another avenue for change, in the spirit of finding common cause: "If it were no longer acceptable to treat animals as animals and violate and kill them, the animalization process that serves to justify structures of white male power would be weakened. Weakening that structure is one way to avow the lives of those who were wantonly killed and perhaps allow more just social relations to develop from our grief and anger."
I think there is truth to that, but it's pretty abstract. That works well for us philosopher-types, but what about the less philosophical among us? I think there is another suggestion lurking in the spirit of Gruen's essay. Perhaps when a friend is upset about X (say, the slaughtering of a lion with a bow and arrow, a forty hour chase, and a decapitation) and you are upset about Y (say, the slaughtering of a black man with a point-blank shot to the face by a police officer during a routine traffic stop), you might try to empathize with her concern over X, and then, after listening for a time, express your concern about Y and try to show the similarities between the suffering of the two subordinated groups. Now, maybe you are right that Y is more important than X. But will your friend be more persuaded by hearing why you care about Y? Or by you berating her for not caring more about Y? I'm no psychologist, but the former seems far more likely to succeed (and less likely to backfire) than the latter.
Now let me take this a step further – whether this is a step too far for some, I don't know. Whereas some empathize with dead lions and others with dead black citizens, there are those who empathize with police who have been killed while properly executing their duty. Will we make more progress toward social change by demonizing such people or by trying to understand their grief and by decrying all unnecessary violence and loss of life?
I'll leave that last question as a rhetorical one for the reader to answer, and just close with one final thought. Black Lives Matter. I think it's important to say that, because it is, indeed, Black people who are under the greatest threat in this country. But acknowledging that fact is consistent with, and perhaps even supported by, making common cause with other injustices.