The Problem With ‘All Lives Matter’

Consider this statement:

“I believe everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

Chances are, you agree with the statement, as it stands now. In the U.S., this freedom is codified in the bill of rights, in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Internationally, the right is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as accepted by the United Nations. The concept of free expression has been traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Standing alone, the statement is not a new or particularly controversial one.

Now let’s put the phrase in a new context:

“What is your opinion on child pornography?”
“I believe everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

It doesn’t taste the same any more, does it? The words are exactly the same, but the meaning has changed.

Meaning Is More Than What’s Written

Language has two levels of meaning: text and subtext. ‘Text’ is the actual words used and their literal meaning. ‘Subtext’ is meaning that is not actually spoken, but is implied. To understand the subtext, you have to look at the context.

(To help keep these straight: the ‘sub’ in subtext is the same root as the ‘sub’ in submarine. It means under, so subtext is meaning that is under the text. The ‘con’ in context means with or together, so context is everything that you have to look at together with the text to understand the full meaning.)

In the example above, the text is the same: “I believe everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

The context is new. Now instead of standing as a lone statement, the text is a response to the question: “What is your opinion on child pornography?”

Because of that context, in addition to the literal textual meaning: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” it now carries the implied subtextual meaning: “…and I believe child pornography is a valid form of expression that should be protected under that freedom.”

The context has changed the meaning of this sentence from one you almost certainly agree with to one you almost certainly don’t.

I Thought This Post Was About Race Stuff…?

“Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” are phrases that have both text and subtext. The text for each phrase is the simple literal statement each embodies: that black lives matter and that all lives matter. Going solely from the text, neither statement contradicts the other (The phrase “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter, and the phrase “All lives matter” includes ‘black lives’ in the subset of ‘all lives’), and only the most overt racists (or sexists, homophobes, classists, objectivists, narcissists) would claim the opposites to these statements: “Black lives don’t matter” or “Some lives don’t matter”.

But meaning is more than just text. If we want to understand the strong emotional reactions people have to these statements, we also have to look at the subtext to each of these phrases. To find the subtext, we have to look at the context. Specifically, we have to ask, “What are these statements in response to?”

What Does #BlackLivesMatter Mean?

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter (and by extension, non-Twitter use of the phrase and the associated movement) originated in response to the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black boy, and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed teenager and claimed the act to be in self-defense. It grew in response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014 at the hands of police, and has shown up in response to other deaths of black adults and children by law enforcement, including Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and most recently George Floyd. Many of these cases have been characterized by misapplication or unreasonable escalation of force, and in most of the cases, the officers involved have been acquitted of criminal charges.

By looking at the context of what #BlackLivesMatter is a response to, we can see both the text and subtext to find the full meaning of the statement.

Text: Black lives matter…
Subtext: …but current police behavior and culture is leading to a disproportionate amount of black deaths relative to their presence in the American population, and the officers involved face relatively small consequences for their actions. As a nation, we need to acknowledge that these problems are real, and reform the systems that are contributing to them.

What Does #AllLivesMatter Mean?

By contrast, “All Lives Matter” arose in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This can be seen in the history of the term (which spikes concurrently with spikes in the usage of “Black Lives Matter”), the way the term is used (either in direct or indirect response to people using the phrase “Black Lives Matter”), and the phrase’s construction (it’s just the phrase “Black Lives Matter” with one of the words replaced, like a Weird Al parody).

Given this context, we look at both the text and subtext to find the full meaning of this phrase as well:

Text: All lives matter…
Subtext: …so stop going on about how “black lives matter”.

The first group believes the problem is an issue of corrupt or broken systems in place perpetuating unequal (and dangerous) treatment of different people. The second group believes the problem is the first group saying there is a problem. By speaking out against “Black lives matter”, the person saying “all lives matter” is denying the systemic problem exists (“Police kill just as many white people as black people”) or denying the problem is actually a problem (“If they don’t want to get shot, they should stop committing crimes”).

Now, not everyone who says “All lives matter” intends to promote the subtext that the phrase carries. Many repeat and share it because they agree with the literal textual meaning of the phrase, and think that’s all there is to it. Nevertheless, it does still carry the original subtext with it. People in the Black Lives Matter camp hear a denial that their concerns are valid. People who oppose the movement (including white supremacists, white nationalists, and other people who are openly racist) hear support and solidarity. And people who don’t really want to think about difficult topics hear an excuse to not wrestle with the issue.

What About #BlueLivesMatter?

“Blue (meaning police) lives matter” is also a direct response to “Black lives matter”. But where “All lives matter” is mostly just trying to ignore the subtext of “Black lives matter”, the subtext of #BlueLivesMatter actively opposes it.

Text: Blue lives matter…
Subtext: …so the excessive force you’re complaining about is necessary for the police to protect themselves or feel safe.

While #AllLivesMatter is countering #BlackLivesMatter, there isn’t necessarily an exclusionary message in the subtext. It’s not saying that any one group of people is more important or deserving of protection than another. However, the subtext of #BlueLivesMatter does promote an exclusionary message that “Police lives are more important than the lives of the people being killed by police, and their protection should come first.”

Where Do I Go From Here?

Before using any trending phrase or hashtag, look beyond the text and its basic, literal meaning. Find the subtext of the statement. How is the phrase being used? What is the phrase said in response to, or in defense of, or in opposition to? Do you agree with both the textual and the subtextual meaning?

When I look at the phrase “Black lives matter”, I agree with both the text and the subtext. I may not agree with you on how specifically to deal with the problem of systemic racism and police violence, but I agree that these are problems that need to be dealt with.

When I look at “All lives matter” and “Blue lives matter”, I agree with the literal textual meanings, but not the associated subtexts. (Note: I do have a lot of respect for police officers who risk their lives and wellbeing to protect people and uphold the law, but #BlueLivesMatter isn’t a good way to express that support. It shows support, but it’s also trying to pick a fight.)

And if someone calls you out for saying something that means more than you thought it did, try to listen. They may be more familiar with the implied meaning than you are

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I probably got some stuff in this post wrong. This post explains why I’m trying anyway.

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