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Whose Lives Mattter?

Steve Hayes disagrees with my last post. In his blog Khanya, he argues staunchly that "all lives matter" is not a racist phrase. He has heard the arguments for it, and remains unconvinced. But his reasoning is different from that of the typical "all lives matter" supporter. He looks at a handful of recent articles, and finds them wanting.

He doesn't mince words in his criticism.

In reading those articles, I can only think that the people who write them have lost their moral compass, or their sense of logic or both.

If one takes a charitable view of it, one could say that the logical and moral flaw is assuming that if people say the right thing for the wrong reasons, then the right thing becomes wrong.

A less charitable view is that those who maintain that "all lives matter" is wrong really believe that some lives matter more than others.

In either case, the denigration of "all lives matter" is American exceptionalism at its worst.

My first reaction was to point out that all the articles describe the use of the phrase "all lives matter" within a particular context. It's not that we should never say "all lives matter"; we just shouldn't use it to support systemic racism.

But don't look for any of that nuance in the headlines. And that is the core of Hayes' objection. "You should stop saying 'all lives matter'" and "'All lives matter' is and always was racist" convey a much stricter prohibition against a phrase which, in most contexts, is the opposite of racism—and, in fact, has been used in the fight against racism long before the Black Lives Matter movement ever appeared.

In a world where headlines and sound bites often pass for public discourse, repetition of the simplistic meme "'all lives matter' is racist" can have disastrous consequences. If we abandon the phrase "all lives matter" to the racists, we deprive ourselves of the words to convey our belief that all lives do, in fact, matter. Hayes gives an example:

A few months ago there was a terrorist attack in France, and Facebook offered its users a French flag to cover their profile picture to indicate solidarity with the victims. Last week there was a terrorist attack in Iraq, and there were many more victims than in the French attack, but Facebook did not offer its users an Iraqi flag. The people at Facebook clearly believe that French lives matter, but Iraqi lives don’t matter as much. But they are not racist, oh no! It’s believing that all lives matter that is racist.

Similar to the phrases "law and order" and "states' rights" a few decades ago, "all lives matter" is becoming codespeak for "I'm racist". Can we redeem this phrase before it's too late?

Perhaps the way forward is to challenge those who use it. When someone responds "all lives matter" to yet another murder of an unarmed black person, the correct rejoinder should be not, "That's racist," but "Yes: Black lives matter because all lives matter."

Because they do.

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