"All Lives Matter": Subtext, Parroting & Contemporary Political Culture

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

As the #BlackLivesMatter protests against the unjust killing of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement officers continue, reactionaries have wheeled out their newly polished counter-slogan: All Lives Matter. This article is going to address both side's contentions, what they mean on a surface level and on a sub-textual level and also, why certain people seem to think that simply saying “All Lives Matter” trumps “Black Lives Matter”.

There Is A Language Gap in Our Political Discourse

You will be hard-pressed to find an individual who, at least on some level, can watch the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, and argue that Chauvin is entirely justified in what he did. Furthermore, you will be even harder pressed to find a member of the black community who thinks that the unlawful killing of Floyd is just "one of those things". As a result, massive, international demonstrations have begun taking place in protest. Starting in the United States, but now worldwide, people are taking to the streets in protest of the murder, systemic racism in America, and the discrimination against minorities across the world.

I took the opportunity to attend the #BlackLivesMatter march in Cambridge on the 6th of July. At the event, which was entirely peaceful, and observant of social distancing rules, speeches, anecdotes and poetry were read, retelling personal stories of discrimination faced by black people in the Cambridge area. I was stunned by what I heard.

Whilst black people in Britain seldom face the unabated violence their American counterparts feel at the hands of the police, there is clearly still a problem persistent within the policing system. That said, whilst walking through the streets of Cambridge, I overheard two shopkeepers in the Market Square chatting, one remarking to the other: “Look at these lot, all lives matter, not just black lives”.

At first, I felt annoyed. At first, it felt like he was being insensitive to the cause that so many thousands had turned out to support. The least the guy could do was to acknowledge this movement and not to parrot the old “all lives matter” slogan.

Of course, I was wrong, and he is right. All lives do matter. That’s equality after all.

In fact, all lives mattering is the entire point of the movement. See, when all lives matter, we won’t be seeing black people disproportionately dying of police violence in the US. When all lives matter, we won’t be seeing the ‘law & order’ President unconstitutionally tear-gassing peaceful protestors for a photo-op. No, when all lives matter, the police won’t be violent, systemic racism won’t be a malignant cancer in law enforcement and black people won’t be, on average, significantly poorer than their white counterparts.

Congress of Racial Equality March, Washington D.C. (1963)

So, if these people oppose BLM, why do they appear to operate towards the same end goal?

“All lives matter” carries two meanings that “black lives matter” does not. Where “black lives matter” intuitively shines a harsh light on systemic and structural inequalities in society, as well as rallying support against police brutality towards black people, the phrase “all lives matter” turns that same light off. On a subtextual level, “black lives matter” argues that the inequality is here and that the end goal is to bring black lives to par with white. Claiming that “all lives matter” argues that this gross inequality is simply not there – that it is some sort of illusion.

To suppose that the phrase “black lives matter” is to issue a rallying call for black people to incite a race war, conquer the white race, in order to enslave them and to subjugate them, would make you appear truly insane. It is a call for equality; plain and simple. “All lives matter”, on the other hand, denies that there is any inequality in the first place; that we are all treated the same.

For one to proudly boast that “all lives matter” means to say one of two things: a) that they are ignorant to the mounds of evidence that proves beyond any reasonable doubt that minorities face additional obstacles in economic and social life, compared to white people, or b) that they have thoroughly analysed the information and have concluded that it is not conducive to their political camp, and thus reject it.

In response to various “all lives matter” proclamations, several counterpoints have been made; most of which outline the logical fallacy through the use of metaphors:

It is like being rushed to A&E with a broken leg, only for the doctor to tell you that ‘all injuries matter’, before leaving to bandage paper cut

It is like holding a community fundraiser for a decaying library when an angry mob shows up demanding that “all libraries matter”, especially when their library is in pristine condition

Ultimately though, we are faced with the question of why so many people, despite the clear and obvious logical flaws behind the statement “all lives matter”, continue to repeat it.

I would argue that has a lot to do with the state of modern politics. Today, we are so vitriolically tribal. The age of social media, of Trump, of the Conservative-Progressive paradigm, where the two camps of politics seek to get one over on the other at all costs. Note that here, I am not blaming the right over the left, because it takes two to tango when it comes to tribalism. When everything the Daily Mail prints is fake news to the left, the same with The Guardian and the right (in the UK); when every single Twitter, Facebook and Instagram user inevitably locks themselves into an echo chamber of attestation and confirmation, the schism in our political discourse grows ever vaster.

To concede that there is a structural issue still today, in modern society, surrounding race is for the right to concede one to the left. Perish the thought of Arsenal conceding one to our North London rivals Spurs, it isn't so dissimilar. Except we always forget that no one is keeping score – and even if someone were, it wouldn’t be 1-0, or 3-2, it would be an astronomical scoreline - but likely still even.

Essentially, in politics, “you win some, you lose some”. Your values and the points you defend are always under siege, that is called opposition. The movement towards a more just and equitable society for all races, colours and creeds, seems to me to be a good one. However, if you disagree with “black lives matter”, instead of parroting a flawed argument that you did not even think of yourself, try to reason why you do not agree. Next, present that argument to someone who might disagree with you, and discuss it. Ultimately, neither of you may change your minds, but you’ll be all the better for the discussion.

Politics is not about “owning the libs”, watching someone “Trumpgret” or “winning”, phrases which have come to be everyday parlance in contemporary political culture, it is about implementing your beliefs for the good of society. I am guilty of being overly partisan, as everybody can be from time to time, but politics is a toxic place at the minute, and widening the two camps is not good for anybody.

Listen to the claims being made by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, look at the evidence, draw your conclusions, argue your point. We are all forced to acknowledge this movement now, if weren't already before, that it is on our doorstep.

The Politician Independent Newspaper, created in 2020