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Samuel Dubose, Cecil the lion and the ethics of avowal

Protesting against one injustice doesn’t means you privilege it over another

July 31, 2015 2:00AM ET

This week, stories and images of two egregious killings flooded the news.  Social media sites were abuzz with outrage about the slaughter of Samuel Dubose, a father of 10 in Cincinnati, and Cecil the lion, a father of 12 cubs in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. They followed the tragic death of Sandra Bland in a Waller County, Texas, jail of an apparent suicide, after a policeman pulled her over for changing lanes without signaling.

Almost as quickly as expressions of shock, grief and horror crescendoed on social media, criticisms of these outpourings grew in kind. They took a familiar form: White people care more about lions than black people, people care more about black men than black women, people care more about wild animals than captive animals, people care more about killings than daily suffering from poverty, violence and hate, and so on.

I’ve always been leery of the zero-sum mentality that suggests if you protest against one injustice that means you privilege it over another injustice. 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. In this latest episode of oppression Olympics, very little attention has been focused on the commonalities between the murders of Samuel and Cecil and the racist, humanist, colonialist structures that support white men killing black men, women and animals. 

After being pulled over for failure to display a front license plate by a University of Cincinnati cop, Dubose, a 43-year-old unarmed black man, was shot point-blank in the head and killed. Ray Tensing, the offending officer, lied to the police dispatch about what happened. The University delayed the release of the video as they prepared for protests. They were right to worry: The video is chilling. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote, “To watch that video is to be witness to an execution. What kind of person takes another person’s life so cavalierly?”

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.

In Zimbabwe, another armed white man who felt entitled to kill cavalierly took the life of a beloved endangered lion. Walter Palmer, a wealthy dentist from Minnesota with a history of illegal poaching, lured Cecil the lion out of a protected sanctuary with the corpse of another animal and then shot Cecil with a crossbow. That did not kill the majestic creature, and Palmer and his local collaborators, tracked the lion, shot and killed him, skinned him and then beheaded him for a trophy.

Tensing and the two men who helped Palmer decapitate Cecil have been arrested. The dentist may be indicted as well. He certainly is not faring well in the court of public opinion.

Demands for legal response often follow revelations of grotesque disregard for the lives of others. But as we have seen in too many cases, justice is not often served by the courts in societies where violence against black bodies and the slaughter of animals are part of every day practices. The inadequacy of the law to prevent injustice, leaves us in need of a way to process our grief. The deaths of Samuel and Cecil should be mourned. Because mourning is always accompanied by anger, sometimes even rage, when we are unable to collectively mourn some of that anger can be misdirected. 

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 as “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.

Historically, disregard for the lives and bodies of black people has been justified through a process of dehumanization that specifically compares them to animals. (Protesters of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Freddie Grey killing in Baltimore, Maryland, were directly referred to as animals.) In the current taxonomy of power, white and black women are also often animalized, for example, when exploited as pieces of meat. 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.

Lori Gruen is professor and chair of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. She is the author of the new book "Entangled Empathy:  An Alternative Ethic for our Relationships with Animals."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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