Justice matters

It’s sad and dangerous how easy it is (for everyone) to misunderstand a slogan and react defensively. When a belief is condensed to a few words, it necessarily assumes a whole set of contexts, contexts a reader of that slogan may misunderstand. There are examples of brilliant writing where tremendous nuance has been conveyed in only three words; they are exceedingly rare.

Three-word slogans put into hashtags seem to clarify and encapsulate meaning to their authors, and to the people who already share the beliefs and even prejudices of the person who used the slogan. They also seem to clarify and encapsulate entirely different messages to people with other sets of assumptions. When that person responds with another slogan it is difficult to prevent a shouting match.

I cringe when I see #AllLivesMatter, and feel a little sick when someone goes further by saying White Lives Matter instead. Yet I have to admit that the first time I first time I saw the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag I was troubled by the implication that lack of accountability in increasingly militarized police forces is somehow only a problem for blacks. It didn’t take me long to have the next thought, which is that when I arrived at the emergency room with broken bones in my left foot I didn’t say, «hey doc, all feet matter.» It went without saying that my right foot matters too. If the doctor had reminded me that both feet matter, I might have tried to get a different doctor to treat me. Still, it was my second thought, not the first one. «All Lives Matter» is a reaction to the assumption that «Black Lives Matter» means «Only Black Lives Matter» instead of «We Shouldn’t Have To Remind You That Black Lives Matter.»

Of course it’s not all just a matter of tonedeafness and misunderstanding what was never intended. Not too long ago after I voiced a complaint about police being out of control, a friend snapped back at me with words to the effect that whatever I said didn’t matter because, being white, I am safe from police violence.

It is true that I have never been killed by police because of bigotry or bias, and I cannot deny that being white makes me far less likely to run afoul of law enforcement when minding my own business. However, I’ve been stopped on the street for no reason but to check my ID too often, been hauled down to police stations for things that the cops knew I had no part in too often, been pulled out of a car by my hair too often, and my head has been slammed onto the hood of a police car too often to think it’s someone else’s problem.1

I try to be very careful about discussing this. I make an effort to be clear in my meaning and to be specific in my expression2 in any topic. I wouldn’t take the time or energy to say or write what I don’t mean. Since I don’t want my time and energy wasted I operate from the position that interpretation is not the listener’s duty; the responsibility for communication rests solely on the speaker.3 Saint Francis wrote that it is better to understand than be understood, but I take that to mean that I ought keep my mouth shut and listen more often. When I do open my mouth, it’s my job to be understood.

That said, no expression is perfect. Under normal circumstances, listeners do give the benefit of the doubt to the person speaking. Most people usually do check to see if there is an alternate interpretation to what they hear, and either ask questions to clarify or reserve judgment until hearing more before they jump to the conclusion that the speaker is wrong, disrespectful, or intends harm.

Where emotions are high, especially when fear is in play, people err on the side of caution. They give less benefit of the doubt than they normally would, and jump to conclusions more quickly. It’s not right, but it’s unrealistic to assume otherwise.

It’s not surprising that in the wake of news reports of black people dying at the hands of police while posing no threat to the officer or officers, and having committed either no crime or no crime which justifies the use of lethal force, that people would start talking past one another instead of to one another or (it’s probably too much to ask) with one another.

Then the slogans start flying, and hashtags can’t ever be much more than slogans. Slogans have rarely changed anyone’s mind. Slogans serve not to inform, convince, or educate, but to reinforce a belief in those who already agree. Slogans also cause backlash not just from the people who disagree but also from those who feel that they didn’t need to be reminded. Those people may even take the reminder as an accusation that they don’t actually believe it, and resent having seen the slogan.

If it sounds as though I’m describing the reaction of whites to #BlackLivesMatter, then I’ve succeeded in my role as communicator.

If slogans repel nuance, responding to a slogan with another slogan carries an automatic assumption of contradiction. Slogans serve as a rallying cry for the faithful; any other response can be seen as a defiant rejection, even when it shouldn’t be. Whoever it was that used that other slogan clearly isn’t someone on our team.

@AkinsIzaha’s post depicting #AllLivesMatter as whites attempting to silence #BlackLivesMatter clearly illustrates this. @AkinsIzaha followed that up, saying,

If you say it should be #AllLivesMatter instead of #BlackLivesMatter you’re a part of the problem and don’t even know it. (Emphasis mine)

The follow-up is far more effective than the original. It makes a terrible rallying cry because it’s not directed at people who already agree. It reads like part of a dialogue rather than a battle. It prompts the reader to reexamine assumptions, rather than accusing people using #AllLivesMatter of something they don’t believe they are doing. The implication is not that they intend to marginalize the voices of black people, nor that they are incapable of seeing how their communication is being misconstrued, but rather that they do not intend to do so, and are capable of seeing what’s being pointed out.

The original tweet has so far garnered 5,049 «favorites» and has been retweeted 7,542 times. In addition an image of that tweet has been shared almost nine thousand times on Facebook, and there are likely more instances on Facebook and on other social media sites. @AkinsIzaha’s later tweet? Four «favorites» (one of which I left) and four retweets (I’m waiting until after I post this to retweet it myself.) Certainly it’s more satisfying to declare other people wrong than it is to invite people to change their minds.

Whether it is always intended or not, there is an important component to #AllLivesMatter. It’s not just that white people count too, but that justice is universal. When people are judged, harrassed, imprisoned, and killed not because of their actions but for arbitrary reasons that is plainly unjust. The darkness of one’s skin tone is about as arbitrary as it gets, but it is not the only reason people face injustice. Failure to hold police accountable when they abuse the position of power they are entrusted with means that any of us are in danger

There’s another implication that those who say «All Lives Matter» may be resisting, and it’s the one that the friend I mentioned above asserted: that the opinions of whites aren’t relevant because our lives are not being threatened. Of course, whites’ lives are—threatened but that is less important than the fact that whites’ lives could be threatened. Martin Niemöller’s famous words («First they came for the Socialists…») should be sufficient warning that it is in everyone’s self-interest not to stand idle while injustice occurs on our watch and in our names.

This principle was stated more directly and concisely somewhat more recently and with greater poignancy considering the state of affairs in the United States today. I’m including more than just the famous fragment, but will highlight it in bold face:

Moreover, I am congnizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We care caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.4

It is an error to think when blacks (of course, we can substitute one of many other groups here) are treated in a manner we think is unjust while whites are generally treated in a manner which seems just, that we should call it injustice for blacks and justice for whites.

It is injustice. Full stop.

I don’t generally use hashtags but considering the content of this post, it seems appropriate to do so when I send this post’s notice to Twitter. I’ll end this post with the ones I’ve chosen and a plea that I be forgiven if they inadequately convey both my outrage and my hope. Obviously two little hashtags cannot bring the nuance I would prefer, but I’d be remiss to spend all this time complaining without making an attempt to suggest another way—a way to affirm the universal nature of justice without contradicting the specific calls to address injustice.

#BlackLivesMatter #AndJusticeForAll

  1. Fortunately, none of these things has happened recently. ↩︎

  2. Of course if I go on too long, people rightly get impatient and want me to get to the point. Anyone who has read Monochromatic Outlook at all can see this. ↩︎

  3. It is necessary for both parties to show up to a conversation. Listeners are responsible for paying attention and for not deciding to disbelieve what’s said before hearing it. Absent those requirements, the speaker cannot really be said to have a listener or a conversation anyway. ↩︎

  4. Letter From Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr ↩︎