At this point, most people have heard about the #blacklivesmatter movement, and thank God for that. Finally, it feels like a somewhat productive conversation is happening about racism in this country, and though there are still many hurdles to overcome, effective discourse is the absolute best place to start.
Of course, there are impediments to this productive conversation taking place. The most notable is the “all lives matter” argument. Some people responding this way are, I would guess, simply unaware of the fact that they are racist. I don’t mean this in an evil-villain sort of way, but in the way that they genuinely have a deep-seated, probably unconscious belief that white people are morally superior to other races.
A lot of others, however, seem to genuinely have an interest in understanding the conversation, but can’t get past their initial response. I was an idealistic hippie at one point, so I can empathize with the reluctance to support a movement that seems divisive. Ultimately, though, saying “all lives matter” Is not only unhelpful but destructive to the necessary change that’s happening.
Here are my top 5 reasons why:
1. It Effectively Means Nothing
Of course all lives matter, and perhaps affirming this aloud is useful in certain situations.
The problem, however, is that saying it in a political forum, in response to someone stating that black lives matter, is much different than having it as a bumper sticker. It’s comparable to throwing up your hands, or saying “I just wish everyone could get along” when someone tells you that they’re upset.
If we’re looking at the world through a lens of naïve idealism, we will become easily discouraged. Effective activism can’t be rooted in idealism, it is rooted contextual understanding. Without acknowledging specific problems, platitudes derail communication, and can easily make everyone feel hopeless.
2. It’s A Red Herring
In critical reasoning, a red herring is a logical fallacy wherein someone brings up something unrelated as a way of distracting from another issue.
Even though it’s possible that many people who say “all lives matter” are genuinely confused by the #blacklivesmatter movement, there is still a subtle defensive involved. Why is it so uncomfortable for the focus to be on black issues for a change?
I don’t know the answer, but I can guess: white people are not used to the focus being on issues that aren’t primarily about them. I don’t think most white people recognize this consciously, but I can attest to the fact that it is very rare for me, as a white person, to turn on the TV or radio and feel like the issues I’m hearing discussed aren’t catered, in part, to me.
Not only is that the case here, but this movement also calls attention to the ways white people benefit from and/or perpetuate extreme violence. So yes, that’s going to be uncomfortable, but we’re comparing an inconvenience for one demographic to life-threatening disregard for another.
3. It Debilitates Organization
Anyone who has been involved with organizational efforts has an advantage in this discussion. They know that it is literally the first and most important step in accomplishing anything to decide what your mission is.
If your boss gives you an assignment, she cannot say “just do all the work.”
When you get in the car, you cannot tell your GPS you want to go everywhere.
Cleaning your kitchen doesn’t mean you won’t clean your bathroom. Etc.
No one is accusing breast cancer awareness groups of being insensitive to those battling other forms of cancer. This movement is about organizing change, not making catch-phrases out of our highest ideals. It has to include a focus.
4. It’s Passive-Aggressive
People, in general, don’t like conflict. Bringing up serious political issues is already a vulnerable thing to do and most people willing to broach these topics know that they will, at the very least, be cast as a ‘buzzkill’ and at the worst, become the target of serious aggression.
Because saying “all lives matter” takes the power out of the original statement, it’s a way of passive-aggressively calling the person out for being disagreeable. It’s a way of accusing them of being selfish or not caring about others because they are choosing to focus on the concerns of one group. It’s basically a sugar-coated way of saying “shut up about it already.”
Plus, once someone says “all lives matter”, they create a trap for the original speaker. If they choose to reinforce the notion that black lives matter, they appear to be even more hostile for bringing it up multiple times while others try to defuse the energy behind it.
5. It Ends the Conversation
Finally, it is a way of shutting down the conversation. This is the why I think most people say it: they intuitively know that saying “all lives matter” is a conversational dead-end, and they’re uncomfortable with the topic, so they shut it down.
Suppose someone actually goes with the “all lives matter” sentiment. Then what? All it does is neutralize the inertia that is built by prioritizing one particular issue. The nature of focus is that it places greater emphasis on some things rather than others. How would all lives matter activism even happen? It couldn’t, because it denies concerned people the right to even acknowledge the issue at hand.
Saying all lives matter sounds innocent, which is what makes it so tricky. I’m not accusing everyone who says it of being racist or malicious, but I think that the statement needs to be counted for what it is: a passive-aggressive attempt to derail an uncomfortable but extremely important cultural conversation.
Don’t give up: #blacklivesmatter is building momentum.