The Semantics and Pragmatics of “Black Lives Matter”

A few weeks ago, we had our weekly tabling and monthly rally in Georgetown, TX, to remove their Confederate monument. It was a special day, because in Charlottesville, VA, they removed the monuments to Lee and Jackson that had been the focal point of the Unite the Right rally in 2017 — the rally-turned-riot that killed Heather Heyer and sparked a national wave of interest in antifascist activism, including mine.

I chose to wear my “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. When I left our table to go to a very nice little coffee shop just off the square, Lamppost Coffee (friendly staff, pleasant surroundings, coffee and pastries are just fine), a Black gentleman who was in line asked me whether my life mattered. His dialect of English and mine aren’t a perfect match and I didn’t realize that he was referring to my shirt, so it took him repeating himself three times for me to catch the question.

So, “Black Lives Matter”-saying non-Black person: does your life matter? Yes, obviously my life matters. And I am almost invariably treated as if my life matters. If you get everyone to agree that my life matters, they would treat me in the exact same way that they treat me now, because pretty much everybody already sees my life as one that matters. What that means is that, while “my life matters” (as said by me or anyone else) and “white lives matter” are true, they are nevertheless irrelevant in most contexts. They don’t need to be said. If, in the middle of an interaction with a police officer, I could suddenly press a button and make him start acting as if my life mattered, nothing would change — he was already treating me that way. Not every experience that I have is of respect, but it is overwhelmingly normal for me to be treated like a person capable of making his own decisions, who is where he’s supposed to be, and whose preferences other people should take account of. I’ve had just enough experiences of being thought helpless, dangerous, or out-of-place that I can grasp by contrast that I’m used to being treated reasonably fairly and with more than a modicum of respect.

I can’t speak to Black experience, but those who can tell me that it’s not the same. Not, of course, that literally every interaction a Black person has in our society is a mortifying or dangerous gamut of humiliation or police brutality, nor that such experiences are even normal for most Black people. But they’re not abnormal, either, for a great many Black people.

So we say that Black lives matter, and we don’t say that white lives matter or all lives matter, not because the latter aren’t true, but because they’re not relevant to anything. It’s like just randomly spouting the value of pi or the recent exchange rates of Kazakh currency: if something is false, you usually shouldn’t say it, but if something is true but irrelevant, you still don’t usually need to say it.

Later, the Wilco Patriots and I were deeply privileged to speak with this sterling example of humanity at its very best; he was so thoughtful as to wear a matching but meaner-spirited shirt.

Georgetown, TX, July 10, 2021

(In case it’s unclear, I’m the strong bearded one, conveying poise, ease, and wisdom, and he’s the sad beardless one, conveying confusion, failure at satirizing a common slogan, and generalized anger and confusion. For instance, he repeatedly asserted that Mike Brown burned Ferguson after being murdered. He said this a lot of times and it never started making more sense. Time machine? Risen from the grave? Both? Seriously, time travel fiction and zombie fiction really should not mix. Plus, arson zombies are not a thing, unless AMC wants to advance me the money to write a season of “The Flaming Dead”.)

He demanded that I answer whether white lives matter. “Yes”, I said. He came back to this, over and over again, because like the rest of his dishonest ilk, he’s not able to have a conversation; he’s just a walking bag of non-responsive talking points. He wanted to know why we didn’t make a T-shirt that said “White Lives Matter”. Whatevs, bro.

Somehow, in the face of the sentence “Black lives matter”, people lose their comprehension of English. If I tell you that Whitey McPaleFace there is wearing a hat, you don’t think to call the cops because of his indecent exposure because he’s not wearing pants. You’re able to understand, “He’s wearing a hat” doesn’t mean “He’s only wearing a hat”. You get that you can wear a hat, and also wear other things. Likewise, just as a simple matter of English grammar, if I say “Black lives matter”, I haven’t said “Only Black lives matter”. Plenty of non-Black lives matter, too. What I’ve said is compatible with white lives mattering, North Dakotan lives mattering, unborn lives mattering, all lives mattering, purple lives mattering, and so forth.

Now the thing is that the people who shriek “all lives matter!” or “white lives matter!” in response to “Black lives matter” know this all just fine. This is how they understand that their own slogan, “blue lives matter”, doesn’t entail that non-police emergency personnel don’t matter. They understand perfectly well that “Black lives matter” is to be said because it’s relevant. When they insist that white lives matter, they’re trying to deny the relevance of the fact that Black lives matter; they’re trying, against all experience, to insist that our society acts as if Black lives matter, so it’s not worth pointing out that they do, or that our society acts as if white lives don’t matter, so it’s worth pointing out that they do. Likewise, the point of saying that blue lives matter is to make it seem as if blue lives are as much in peril as Black ones. (Police officers are regularly treated with disrespect — but not, in general, by the people involved in these discussions. If you insist to me that blue lives matter, you’re not going to change anyone’s behavior, because I already, by temperament, treat police with respect. Take your message to whatever drunken child abuser most recently gave a police officer a traumatic experience.)

They are, in short, feigning illiteracy so that they can confuse themselves and everyone else about history and current events. They’re not trying to deceive anyone else; they’re trying to remain ignorant.

Published by Bryan Register

By day, I teach philosophy. By night, I'm an historical education activist.

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