#BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter: debates and semantics

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the three words: ‘Black lives matter’. Similarly for ‘All lives matter’. However, preface them with a hashtag, and they become performative utterances charged with certain ideological weight. To post on social media these two phrases is to endorse them as a movement, in all their totality. Yet, post one and you are likely to receive a steady stream of likes throughout the day, post the other, it seems, and you will be met with near universal vituperative opprobrium.

Let us dig deeper into the semantics of these phrases. The claim from ardent supporters of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is that sceptics miss or wilfully ignore the implicit ‘too’ at the end. In the same spirit, to post that #AllLivesMatter is to attempt to whitewash a powerful and very real call for justice. But we can use this same technique of inference with the latter phrase: implicitly, all lives matter ‘as well’, or ‘as much’. If we are purposefully to omit a section of our sentence, then we must have the courage to apply our implication fairly and consistently, across all boundaries of race, gender and other such categorisations. This includes instances of racially-motivated violence against non-black people; this is not, of course, to diminish the significance of increasingly apparent patterns of violence against blacks – largely men – by unscrupulous American cops. For example, why did we not see a hashtag to the effect of ‘#WhiteGirlsLivesMatter’ when the atrocities of the Muslim grooming gangs of Rochdale and Rotherham finally came to light? Of course, it could be reasonable to argue that there is no need for race to be involved in this – that all children’s lives matter regardless of the ethnicity of their abusers. But that is not the claim being made when the shoe is on the other foot. For many, this reeks of a double standard.

To illustrate the point further on a more personally anecdotal level, I recently felt the full force of the angry social media mob – although I was not at all emotionally troubled by it – for a post I had made drawing comparisons between George Floyd’s case and that of Emily Jones, the 7 year old girl murdered by Eltiona Skana, an Albanian immigrant, in a Bolton park in March of the present year. I indicated that both cases were surrounded by similar circumstances of innocence and defencelessness, and that both victims had died at the hands of someone from a different racial background. In the main, my post garnered criticism on three grounds:

  1. that I had written that no one protested or rioted for Emily.

  2. that the two cases are not comparable because in the one instance there was evidence of systemic racism and the other was a “one-off” crime by a mentally ill woman.

  3. that by finishing my post “RIP to them both, and to all lives lost innocently and unjustifiably” I had smuggled in a “discount” version (to quote one critic) of the #AllLivesMatter counter-movement.

The absence of moral outcry, insofar we have seen it with #BlackLivesMatter, was apparent to any observant follower of Emily’s murder. If other factors such as mental illness are allowed to explain the actions of Emily’s murder, then why are we to exclude the possibility of factors beyond race in the case of Mr Floyd? What if this American cop had a history of general brutality towards all his detainees? What if he himself had been having troubles with mental illness and had not disclosed them to his employer? We should make these speculations no more readily than we should about his hatred of black people, at least not until he has had a fair trial. Neither I nor my Facebook critics – as far as I am aware – have been privy to information evidencing this. Perhaps it is the third criticism which is the most telling of the way social media has morphed into a show-trial forum. For the record I do wholeheartedly approve of the #AllLivesMatter movement, simply because I believe that all lives matter. Once I had used the phrase “all lives” I had apparently signalled my tacit disapproval of B.L.M.. People daring to infer people’s motivations, about which they cannot speak at all meaningfully, and giving up on taking people at their word, has become a sorry sight in today’s digital culture.

Our right to assembly and free speech – and words more generally – matter. I laud the peaceful protesters fighting for wider social justice but I loathe the disparities – motivated by sheer political correctness – we see in the level of moral outrage after atrocities of this nature. Those who concede that “of course all lives matter” should really start to act on these words and be more honest with themselves in adhering to them. Social media and protests are effective tools to spread important messages so now, go and hold a protest for poor Emily. Please.