A debate has been raging on social media over the difference between the coverage, news-framing and public response around the story of the killing of Cecil the Lion versus Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, and other Black lives. While it is very nuanced on all sides, the criticism from some in the social justice community can be encapsulated in tweets such as these:
Sure everybody crying about Cecil the lion now but wait till we find out he had marijuana in his system
— Adam Serwer (@AdamSerwer) July 29, 2015
For some context behind the debate, this is much more than "whataboutism". People are mad at the difference between outcries for a lion and black lives, not because of the and, but because of the or. It's not that we can't be upset or passionate about two issues simultaneously, but for those who are angry about the differences in response, their anger stems from seeing others being so vocal and emotional about one and not the other.
For a different example, when Robin Williams committed suicide, it was around the same time as the Michael Brown murder case. Many posted statuses and memes to the effect of "Black people are getting killed by the police, but y'all rather mourn the death of a white entertainer who killed himself". I can't speak for everyone, but besides that being an apathetic logical fallacy (and a cheap troll analogy), it made me upset because it implied everyone was choosing one over the other.
But the truth is, some of us were choosing the and others were choosing the or. Robin Williams is one of my biggest inspirations, so like thousands across the globe, I mourned him. Michael Brown is one of hundreds of unarmed suspects to be killed by law enforcement with impunity in this country. I was hurt, disgusted, sad, angry and a whole host of emotions, as I stayed privy to the case's developments, shared articles, wrote statuses, etc. We can voice different emotions at the same time, just like we can walk and chew gum.
I do think there are some other concepts at play here: Humans kill each other so much that we are desensitized to it; animals are inherently innocent or handicapped when it comes to humans hunting them; we love lions more than other animals; supporting animals is apolitical in a lot of ways, while vocally supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement is a very deep political choice (and people feel like they are "choosing a side" if they make it. Though ironically, they still are choosing a side if they don't, but that's a whole other debate); some people feel like the murders wouldn't have happened if the victims "did what the police said"; empathy is harder for some to gain when the victim is female or Black; Black people getting killed creates an outrage from Black people and their allies, and a specific type of defensive response to that outrage, and many, many other reasons.
But before we completely dismiss their anger, please do this: Think about how many times you have shared stories, made statuses, talked to people about, watched the news, spread awareness about Cecil the Lion. Compare that number of times you have done the same to Sandra Bland, or Michael Brown or Rekia Boyd or Sam Dubose or others.
Right or wrong, sincere or disingenuous, the paradox is that we can be committed without being vocal. The huge problem with that is we too often use that logic to be "committed" in general attitude only, and not action. We can reap the benefits and blend in the liberal in-crowd, without taking on the responsibilities or risks of pushing for radical change. We can say "I love Black people!" but not agree with #BlackLivesMatter, and not see the disconnect. We say #AllLivesMatter in response to #BlackLivesMatter, and not see it as a dismissal or derailment. We feel that the only thing necessary for us to do is to simply "believe" that the lives of Black people matter to us.
The good thing is, we don't owe it to anybody to prove our allegiance to social justice on social media. And to a certain extent, those committed to social justice aren't looking for proof. They will keep moving onward with or without fair-weather friendlies. The flip side of the coin, however, is we owe it to ourselves. At least I hope so. The bad thing is, no one can make us be honest with ourselves. A mixture of guilt and positive self-image gets in the way of true transformation, on a personal and a societal level. And I think this is a key dilemma for American liberals.
We have a tendency to adopt all the "right" attitudes without really changing behavior; to posture towards the "politically correct" and moral side of an issue, but when society compels us to act on those convictions, we act only when we feel comfortable and the risks of doing so are low. We feel like things such as racism or sexism will go away if "I, personally, am not a racist or sexist. Therefore, I don't have to talk about it, and you can't force me to." And yet, we want a cookie when we say the right things, but wield defensiveness when asked to be accountable. We just want to be comfortable.
There's a huge risk in saying #BlackLivesMatter, on social media or elsewhere. There's zero risk in mourning a lion. Even if we don't agree with one or the other or both, let's stop acting like we don't know exactly why we talk about certain issues and not others.