Reacting to others’ suffering
Gun violence in America is an intractable, apparently unsolvable crisis. This month, it has intersected catastrophically with other tenacious American ailments: race and police violence. These issues have been inextricable in many ways for decades, of course, but the pervasiveness of video-recording and social media have helped turn what was once a matter of competing testimonies into irrefutable proof of police overreach, including murder.
The police killings of black civilians in Louisiana and Minnesota last week, followed by the revenge killing of five police officers in Texas, created a climate of crisis in the United States. Such times are, sometimes, opportunities for progress. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was advanced by the widespread awareness among Americans of all races of injustices being perpetrated against black Americans. However, anything involving guns in America seems somehow impervious to reason.
Race is a unique flashpoint in American life and approaches to it have very often split directly along color lines. This may be changing, with more white Americans recognizing the injustices experienced by their fellow citizens of color. Like sexual orientation equality, issues of racial justice seem to be advancing because of a wider appreciation that transcends personal identity and relies on human empathy for those who are different from ourselves.
Still, Americans – and Canadians in somewhat different contexts, and all peoples – struggle to find balance and moral approaches to confounding issues. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, a counter-campaign declares “All Lives Matter.” After the police killings in Dallas, “Blue Lives Matter” became a slogan. While the veracity of these statements cannot be refuted, they are nonetheless unhelpful and dismissive. Responding to Black Lives Matter with an appropriated variation is disrespectful. It is akin to the complaints by members of the majority when gay pride events occur and the question arises, “When do we celebrate straight pride day?” The answer, as empathetic people know, is that straight people (or white people) don’t need special days to celebrate their situation in society.
The insensitivity of such approaches has been slyly critiqued in social media recently, with one cartoon showing a house on fire while firefighters douse the house next door in water, declaring “All houses matter.” Similarly, a man in the doctor’s office with a broken arm is told, “All bones matter.”
The message should be clear: the perennial problems America has around race are particularly enflamed right now and attempting to dilute these through banal attempts to universalize what is a very particular problem effectively exacerbates the issue. Just last week in this space we noted that the specious way some people respond to any mention of the Holocaust is to note that Jews aren’t the only people to have suffered. Replying to the suffering of one group by an erroneous universalizing of race-particular situations is not a healthy response.
Another development seen recently is the attempt by “pro-Palestinian” activists in the United States to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent catastrophes to their own narrow ends. Students for Justice in Palestine at New York University declared that those responsible for the “genocide” of Palestinians are likewise responsible for the “genocide” of African-Americans, a circle they attempt to square with the fact that a small number of U.S. police have received anti-terrorism training from the Israel Defence Forces.
There are plenty of issues competing for the attention of people of goodwill. There are injustices everywhere, God knows. There is racism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia and every range and permutation of human misery that deserve attention. Yet, when something as systemic and pernicious as the murder of African-Americans by those entrusted to protect American citizens becomes epidemic, this is not the time to elbow one group out of the way or try to co-opt their tragedies.