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 

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