I am going to explain why All Lives Matter is at best tone deaf and more likely just more of same when it comes to race problems in the United States. First, we will try a short little exercise and then assess what is happening in that exercise with what is happening in the more serious push back to Black Lives Matter.
What would happen if someone stood on a corner with a sign proclaiming that Baby Lives Matter. Probably no problem, right? It might be viewed eccentric, puzzling, cute…who knows? But no one would raise much of a protest one way or the other.
Or suppose a group of old ladies marched in front of the governor’s residence with banners and bullhorns loudly protesting that Old Lives Matter. Again, no problems here. Of course old lives matter, right? You might smile and take a few pictures, maybe bring out some lemonade, and hope grandma gets home ok.
You can even go on a scale, survey people and find out where tolerance for life really matters.
Babies? Pretty much everyone is going to agree that babies matter.
Puppies? Why not?
Adults? Whoops, now people might start asking: What kind of adults? Why? The survey might move from 100% agreement to something a bit more shaded. Tell me more about the adults and why you are asking…
Babies and puppies and maybe even old ladies don’t have a lot of political clout. They don’t have agency. They don’t represent something outside the political order, they are submitted within it. As a generic group, they really have no definition that identifies other status. Babies and old ladies are universal.
But more importantly, as a class, they are liked, inoffensive, and non-threatening. Indeed, counter protests against these groups likely would be percieved as insensitive and offensive. Who hates babies?
In regard to Black Lives Matter, implicit in the All Lives Matter response is the racism that motivates Black Lives Matter in the first place. Indeed, inherent to the All Lives Matter protest is the subjugation of black lives and their voice. It is reaction intended to remove legitimacy and agency from the Black Lives Matter protest, dismissing it as insensitive and even being itself racist. Moreover, for those people who say all lives matter — if that is, in fact, what motivates them — then the issue should be easily resolved by accepting the Black Lives Matter movement, even if with just a shrug, much like you might shrug off a protest by old ladies marching in front of the governor’s office.
However, it is precisely the defensive anger that Black Lives Matter provokes that betrays the racism that is the focus of Black Lives Matter. It is the reason black Americans are out there protesting!
Meaning is found in contrast. To overly simplify it, we understand day to be day because it is not night. Meaning is most powerful when the interplay between a statement’s intention and its opposite is most dynamic. If there isn’t much of this interplay — not much contrast — the statement is less meaningful. For example, “Baby Lives Matter” really doesn’t say much or mean much because there isn’t much play between the opposite, Baby Lives Don’t Matter. As a result it is hard to find anything very controversial about it.
“Black Lives Matter”, on the other hand, presents a great deal of play. The power of the political statement is revealed in the All Lives Matter counter protest. In fact, I suggest that the legitimacy of “All Lives Matter” depends inherently on a black lives do not matter — or don’t matter as much — meaning. The “All Lives Matter” statement literally sets a limit, it is expresses a worry that non-black lives don’t somehow be surpassed by black lives. It is an anxiety of privilege, nothing else. Again, expressing that baby lives or old lives matter does not arouse anxiety because it is not a threat.
So, while people marching under the All Lives Matter banner might want to say they are indeed embracing everyone and taking the higher moral ground, they are not. Their opportunity to express this moral superiority passed. If All Lives Matter is sincere, it should not have needed the prod of protest to promote this view. It is naive to think otherwise.
The best thing the All Lives Matter crowd can do is shut up and speak through actions, not words, especially when those words reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of their own political position.