I recently found myself in a situation on Facebook, where I was trying to explain to someone why All Lives Matter is not an acceptable term to use. It was not the first time I found myself in this situation, and so to save time and energy, I thought I’d write the full explanation here.
This explanation is written for a very specific audience: people who have heard the phrase All Lives Matter, are aware that others take issue with it, but do not believe that there is anything wrong with it.
Let’s start by laying out the reasoning why you may not have a problem with the phrase.
You have probably heard the expression Black Lives Matter. You have probably also heard that some people respond to it by saying All Lives Matter. And that seems perfectly reasonable to you. After all, both statements are true and in no way contradict each other.
You do not understand how anyone could not agree with this. It is very easy to prove mathematically. The set of Black Lives is a subset of the set of All Lives, and so saying All Lives Matter is in no way saying black lives do not.
This is all true, but misses the point. The people who object to the use of All Lives Matter are not objecting to it because they think it is false. The problem is not that it is untrue, the problem is with the context surrounding its use. This context is more important than the literal meaning of each individual word.
The problem with All Lives Matter is it devalues the message behind Black Lives Matter. That is because Black Lives Matter is meant to highlight the fact that black lives are not treated as if they matter.
This is commonly illustrated via analogies, my favourite of which I saw on Reddit:
Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!
There’s also a range of comics depicting this thinking, here’s a couple of examples:
Just in case you don’t follow what these examples are illustrating, I’ll also explain with a simpler example:
Let’s say your mother dies, and you seek consolation from a good friend. You tell them your mother has passed away, and they immediately reply with “well, everyone dies”.
In that situation, you may feel offended. Whereas it is true that everyone does indeed die, in that moment everyone didn’t die. Only one person died: your mother. That fact is important, because it means the focus should be on that very real situation. But saying “well, everyone dies” shifts that focus. It shifts it away from that real situation, and towards an abstract truth. And thus, it is an inconsiderate thing to say.
If you agree that “well, everyone dies” is an inconsiderate response, then skip this next bit in italics — it is not for you.
If you are reading this, then it’s because you don’t agree that “well, everyone dies” is an inconsiderate response. If that is the case, it may be that the reason you don’t agree is because you are autistic. To be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being autistic. There is also no shame in not picking up on social subtext. If you don’t agree it’s an inconsiderate response and you’re not sure if you’re autistic, then you should take this test.
This example is meant to be a very clear example of an inappropriate response. A response that is factually true, but is still inappropriate to say due to the context of the situation.
If you do not see that at all in this example, then you may struggle to see it in more complex situations. You may even think that the problem is with the other person, and not you. That they are getting offended over nothing.
If you do think that, unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this piece for me to try and convince you otherwise. All I can say is it will offend people, they will have good reason to be offended, and you should not wish to offend people in this manner.
How these examples relate to Black Lives Matter is due to the fact racism exists in society. Black Lives Matter is a direct response to this real-world racism, such as disproportionate violence perpetrated against black people. This violence is often committed by police officers who will not be punished for their crimes. This is problem that specifically affects black people, not white people.
Earlier I showed three analogies people have used to try and explain this. In one, a person received no food. In another, a house was on fire. And in the third, a person had an injured leg. All three of these things represent the idea that things were not even to begin with. Not everyone got a meal, not everyone’s house was safe, and not everyone was free from injury.
This is analogous to the unequal treatment of black people, particularly by the police. In each example, the fact that things weren’t even was either being ignored or minimised.
And this is the problem with All Lives Matter. It takes the focus away from a problem that needs to be tackled. It takes the focus away from the murder of George Floyd. And instead, it moves the focus towards the more abstract worth of all living humans. But those other humans don’t have the same problem.
It’s important to note that the phrase All Lives Matter solely exists as response to the phrase Black Live Matters. To prove this, let’s take a look at the Google Trends results for the two terms.
If we compare the two, we see that All Lives Matter first appeared shortly after Black Lives Matter became popular. We can also see All Lives Matter is only used during times where Black Lives Matter is also used.
By saying All Lives Matter, you are contrasting it with Black Lives Matter — whether you mean to or not. The two phrases are inextricably linked.
The popularisation of All Lives Matter is likely because some people misinterpret Black Lives Matter. They think it means only black lives matter. Or at the very least, that black lives matter more. This misinterpretation is likely accidental on the part of most people. But it is also encouraged by white supremacists and members of the far right, who do this deliberately in order to detract from the message behind Black Lives Matter.
Black Lives Matter is not saying only black lives matter, or that black lives matter more. The people who say Black Lives Matter already believe All Lives Matter. Their point is that the world is behaving as if not all lives matter. As if black lives do not matter.
If everyone genuinely believed All Lives Matter, then nobody would ever have to say Black Lives Matter. The problem is that not everyone believes that. If they did, we would not see constant police brutality against black people. Black Lives Matter is designed to highlight this fact.
All Lives Matter is inappropriate to use due to its history and these connotations. If you want to express the same literal sentiment, then there are other phrases you could use. You could say: “everyone is special in their own way”, “we are all equal”, “we are all human beings”, and “we are all God’s children” etc.
A word of warning, though: every one of those phrases would be inappropriate if said as a direct response to Black Lives Matter. You may fear that Black Lives Matter sounds exclusionary, or that it puts black people above other people, and so you want to highlight universal value.
But do not worry. The people saying Black Lives Matter have not forgotten about the rights of white people. Or any other people. They are not putting the lives of black people above those of anyone else. They are simply highlighting a very real injustice that exists in our society, and by highlighting it they are hoping people will notice it and help take action to end it.
I hope you now understand why people take issue with All Lives Matter. And hopefully you agree they have a point. If you still don’t think they do, and you plan to continue to argue this point, then I urge you not to. You may think you’re trying to be helpful, but your help is not wanted or required in this particular situation. Far from helping, you will come across as ignorant. Ignorant and also arrogant. Because you are assuming everyone else is misunderstanding a quite basic linguistic concept.
That reasoning implies you think it’s impossible you may be in the wrong. That you, a (probably) white person, may not have understood something about racism. And because it’s impossible, it must be everyone else who is wrong. Even if that were the case (it’s not), it’s worrying for that to be your first reaction, and I would urge you to have a think about why that is.
Also do not be offended that people may not wish to argue this point with you. Black people already spend considerable time and effort trying to convince white people of the reality of racism.
After a while it becomes tiring. Tiring to constantly have to repeat yourself before you are believed. Especially when you’re trying to explain something so real. Something that affects you personally. Something that has a large impact on your life. Meanwhile, the other person has never experienced it. Never been a victim of it. They could go their entire lives without even needing to think about it. But for you, it’s a reality you have to live with every single day.
What may seem like an innocent conversation to you, only seems that way because it is your first time having it. It almost certainly is not their first time. And after enough examples of the exact same thing, people tend to start seeing patterns and making judgements.
No one snowflake caused the avalanche, but that’s of no use to the person snowed under by a mountain of white.