Why do some incidents, like the recent killing of George Floyd or the death of Alan Kurdi become cause célèbres?

Of course the lives of both matter. But so do the lives of other 100 Afro-Americans killed by law enforcement or the 19,164 migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 (according to this source.)

Why some events have the power to swing public opinion so explosively? What's the recipe?

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    Would it be acceptable to change "lives of both matter" to "lives of all matter" ? The world's not a binary place, despite the "choose a side" we're being actively fed.
    – Criggie
    Jun 8, 2020 at 6:28
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    @Criggie: That wouldn't work. The very next sentence agrees with you. But if you change the first sentence, the second sentence stops making sense. And yet that contrast between deaths which cause a public reaction and the deaths that don't is at the heart of this question.
    – MSalters
    Jun 8, 2020 at 8:52
  • @MSalters fair call - that's why I didn't just edit.
    – Criggie
    Jun 8, 2020 at 10:22
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    @Criggie: indeed, I meant both Floyd's and Alan's lives matter. And so the lives of other Afro-American killed by police and war refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. Why are some cases of the class more prominent? I didn't mean to throw other types of lost lives in the discussion, no matter how unfair they were. Jun 8, 2020 at 11:19
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    For major societal change to occur it usually requires people to die. || Related but unrelated: To achieve REALLY large projects thay eith must be government funded (eg Space Shuttle, Delta Project), or must 'go broke' and be bought out at cents in the dollar and reestablished (eg Chunnell, Iridium). Being bought out by the govenment (Ieg ridium) helps it work. Jun 8, 2020 at 23:02

1 Answer 1


Vivid imagery

Consider this image from the first Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 (source)

Amelia Boynton

That's Amelia Boynton, left unconscious after being attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. To see an unarmed woman being treated like this helped to galvanize the Civil Rights movement and would lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Images sometimes evoke pathos that mere prose cannot. The video of George Floyd is hard to watch, especially knowing he dies as a result. Likewise, the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi evoked deep emotions that such a thing could happen. It helps drive the electorate to take action, or at the very least pay attention to an issue.

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    This article has Kurdi, Selma and other sadly famous photos. The first line says "Photojournalists sometimes capture images so powerful the public and policymakers can’t ignore what the pictures show". As I was a kid in the 70's, the Vietnam's one (Kim Phuc) made a vivid impression on me. Jun 8, 2020 at 3:57
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    It must be linked to our way of storing memories. Images impact us in ways textual descriptions can't. Consider the image of the father and child drowned crossing the Rio Grande. It still brings tears.
    – Buck Thorn
    Jun 8, 2020 at 15:29

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