Lives Matter?

It’s astonishing how much vitriol that two groups can summon up concerning two statements that ostensibly they both agree with. Pretty much everyone involved in the current debate believes that black lives and all lives matter, and yet stating what is after all a imagestruism is taboo, depending on your demographic. Both sides are convinced that the other side is, specifically, racist. Since it’s impossible to argue against a statement you agree with, both sides end up claiming, “What you’re saying is obviously true; therefore you’re a racist.” There is (as usual) no content, just demographic signaling mixed with gleeful schadenfreude. (These are the same old links.)

Just to be clear: Each side is defined by its catchphrase; both sides believe the other side’s catchphrase is 100% true; both sides believe that uttering the other side’s catchphrase is extremely offensive. The resulting circus would be funny if it was happening in some other place and some other time, but it’s happening right here and right now, so it’s just tragic.

I’ve got a demographic and the odds are it’s the same as yours, and saying “all lives matter” is extremely taboo in this demographic. It is, we are assured, the same as saying index“go home, Negro.” While this makes no sense on the face of it, it is not necessarily false. Saying “all lives matter” is just signaling a demographic, and if that demographic is one that’s racist but pretending not to be, then “all lives matter” is indeed a code—a “dog whistle” as we somehow started saying recently. Of course, another way of looking at this is that the white guy in the photo is signaling hard that he’s not “one of us,” and ALM people are also not “one of us,” so in this regard they are identical in the only way that matters. They are identical to each other because they’re “different from me.”

A quick google search convinced me that the ALM crew has its share of loony-tunes deluded people who are pretending that BLM has a platform of serial cop-killing. I had to google this because it’s so far outside the Overton window of my demographic that I will never see it on social media; of course, everyone I know is in favor of BLM, and therefore considers ALM both a truism and a racial slur.

This is all well and good, and while, like everyone else in this debate, I believe that black lives matter and that all lives matter, I’m not here to signal anything by throwing one phrase or the other into the ring. But I do think there’s a certain amount of bad faith going on here, and I want to say something about one of these memed screencaptures that get passed around nowadays

13606654_10154187180171826_1156416309149794595_nHere on the left is the story of someone who has seen many (“literally every”) attempts to justify BLM to rival demographics, including one where someone “even went as far as writing out literal definitions of each word – black, lives, and matter.”

Now I want you to imagine something. I want you to imagine that five or ten years ago you saw someone wearing a shirt or carrying a sign that said “white lives matter.” What would you think? Would you think, “a truism!” or would you think, “how racist!”

Saying “white lives matter” would obviously have been taboo in the recent past, and anyone affirming it would have risked getting censured or fired (just as this cop got demoted for calling BLM activists racist terrorists). WLM would have had us all upset. Not because it was a repudiation or appropriation of the BLM catchphrase—this is hypothetically five or ten years ago, remember—it was offensive on its own.

You may well object that saying “white lives matter” is very different from saying “black lives matter,” and you’d be right. You can point out the larger context of our society and the apparent values of different lives, and you could craft a compelling argument that the two statements are not analogous. But to do this you can’t just produce the “literal definitions” of each word and insist that “black lives matter” is a straightforward and uncomplicated statement. If statements were uncomplicated and straightforward, then “all lives matter” would not be offensive to you! Just look up the definitions of all, 13620928_1823178701243773_9155662088011159531_nlives, and matter. How could that upset anyone?

In other words, you can’t have a complicated argument about why your opponent’s phrase if offensive, and insist that your own phrase is simple. You can’t accuse your opponents of dog whistling while forbidding anyone of accusing you of dog whistling.

It should go without saying that the “white lady” at the end of this post, when she said she disagreed, was not disagreeing that black lives matter. She was disagreeing with the complicated argument that posited that reciprocity does not apply to statements of race. Some demographics insist quite explicitly that reciprocity should never be brought in to a discussion on race (“only white people can be racist” is an example or what I mean); other demographics insist that any value system that lacks reciprocity is invalid or at least unconvincing. This is a ClashPoint (TM), and it might be fruitful for each side to lay out its arguments on this topic. It is no good at all, though, to pretend that no one disagrees here, and that one side is just admitting at last that it is racist. The odds of someone sayi13606734_10155158405669762_2491471645901401593_nng to you, “You were right all along; all the secret motives you imputed to my side are correct; we really are a childishly evil caricature from your nightmares,” as they seem to do here, is about as great as Obama revealing his hatred for dolphins.

Claiming, as the meme does, that ALM is like going to an AIDS benefit and saying “cancer kills, too” seems to imply that such behavior is unambiguously bad; but was reminding people mourning Paris that Beirut was attacked, too, similarly bad? The clash point, again, is not about whether this behavior is bad, it’s about when this behavior is bad.

If we can’t understand where the point of conflict is, we end up painting a parodic straw-portrait of our opponents. This meme on the left doesn’t make sense, for example, because no one has ever thought that singling out one dream  is 13615153_10153982505103557_8272851050374068543_noffensive, while everyone thinks that singling out one race is offensive (although no one can agree on which race, or if it’s only offensive for some races, etc.). Of course, the meme is not supposed to make sense per se, because although it is addressed in second person to a hypothetical ALMer, it is designed to be shared by, and therefore within the demographic sphere of, BLMers. It actually means “this is how stupid they look.” An ALMer would not understand what is going on in this picture, though; the assertion seems to be that an ALMer cannot bear to have one case mentioned in isolation, and would interrupt a singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with: “All countries matter!” which is highly dubious. The meme is a non sequitur; but if you spend your time inventing secret motives for your opponents while ignoring their actual beliefs, non sequiturs are inevitable.




  1. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    FWIW, here’s a link to the “moral foundations” stuff I was talking about 2 or 3 weeks ago.

    I don’t have any real dispute with your assessment of what is actually going on btw these two groups. I am interested in how these particular groups formed (as you’ve pointed out elsewhere, there’s no coherent ideology) and became pervasive in our society [or the internet, I don’t know how to distinguish between our society off-line and our society on-line anymore]). Hoping to get some insights from this work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To what extent do you think the search for inherent moral foundations can or should be prescriptive? I understand that this is not the goal here, but 1. descriptive findings have been prescriptivized many times in the past, starting with, say, Aristotle’s Poetics and carrying through to the Overstreet Price Guide, an objective list of what dealers charge for various comics that is somehow also the bible dealers use to determine what to charge for various comics; and 2. it’s pretty common for people to appeal to what’s “natural” in moral arguments, including, most recently in my own discussions and encounters, arguments that morals have an evolutionary and therefore objective basis.

      So will locating an inherent moral foundation act as a persuasive Schelling point around which people can rally?

      I know that this study is in fact coming up with competing and rival valuations, but it is in its infancy, and is probably fudgeable if it, you know, starts to get too popular?


  2. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    The only relationship I’m certain of btw facts and norms/values/morals is that ought implies can. Proving a negative is difficult, so finding any oughts this way (that is, finding things we can’t do to rule out some oughts) is difficult.

    The philosophers are all mad at the social psychologists right now because they see a turf war going on.

    I’m more interested in what the social psychologists say that we actually do rather than what we should do. If we can figure out why people get into these groups and what makes them so vicious, maybe we can find a way to siphon the hatred out, or direct it elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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