What’s Problematic About “All Lives Matter”?
Philosophical Meditations On “Black Lives Matter”
By Professor Mariam Thalos (University of Utah)
July 14, 2016 Picture: Carlo Allegri/REUTERS
This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”
Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter? asked law student Sterling Wilkins of the Democratic presidential candidates assembled for debate on October 13, 2015. Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, did not answer the question directly.
Earlier that summer, an audience of activists had expressed profound disapproval with his statement of “All lives matter”. Republican presidential hopefuls like former Florida governor Jeb Bush have scoffed at the suggestion that there is anything controversial about saying “all lives matter.” And I have personally encountered on college campuses profound puzzlement about the meaning of the statement “Black lives matter”, puzzlement that good will by itself is insufficient to dispel.
So what is one saying when one says “Black lives matter,” such that one might be thought to be in some way disagreeing with someone who says instead “All lives matter”? What is there to disagree with in “Black lives matter” anyway?
It’s clear that there is tension between the two statements, even though the logic of the two statements does not reveal it. Where does the tension between the two statements lie, and what is at stake between them? I will strive to answer these questions in these pages.
Neither of the two statements—“Black lives matter” and “All lives matter”—prohibits someone who affirms it from proceeding to add as follow-up “but Black lives matter less than other lives”; this is because the explicit language of neither proposition is sufficient to rule out the follow-up.
So neither statement explicitly prohibits the racist sentiment of the qualifier phrase. And yet the racist sentiment is precisely what “Black lives matter” seems intended to counter, doing so in a way that the statement “All lives matter” cannot even aspire to do. How it does so requires a bit of explaining. And that’s what this essay is about.
Philosophy is poised to help shed light on matters of this type, with some assistance from the social sciences. Because philosophy is able to negotiate the terrain connecting the natural sciences, the social sciences, the sciences of mind and language, and in addition the moral sciences, it has the tools for addressing questions that cross the boundaries—as these do.
To answer the question of how the statement “Black lives matter” is in tension with “All lives matter,” we need to understand in very general terms the practical functions of statements like “Black lives matter”, as well as how they function specifically in the context of injustice. But most importantly, we need to understand the way that identities function on the public stage. I hope to give some sense of these subjects here.
First, it is important to notice that the phrase “Black lives matter” is not simply a proposition to be affirmed or denied. It is also the label for a social movement that is now agitating for reform of—among other things—institutions of law enforcement, and specifically the racism cultivated in the minds and hearts of its officials by their everyday cultures. These have resulted in abuses of power. Some of the abuses have warranted criminal charges taken against police and others. Justice demands prosecution of such abuses [See Kleinig for an in-depth analysis of the problems with policing in the U.S].
Second, the slogan “Black lives matter” is not meant to open a conversation on the relative value of lives of different color. Or even the relative impact of black lives. The facts about these subjects are not really in dispute.
There is little to dispute in relation to the statement “Black lives matter” as a statement about risks: being born black carries a much higher risk of living a pinched life by comparison with being born white, as well as a much lower chance of living a privileged life—at least in certain parts of the world. Such facts also undermine the truth of “Black lives matter” as a claim about the relative impact of an average black life. And, as a statement about values, “Black lives matter” is entirely uncontroversial.
Clearly, then, this is not the conversation that proponents of the “Black lives matter” movement wish to launch. So what conversation are they hoping to provoke or re-vitalize? In what directions are they striving to move us? And how does one get on board with them, should one see fit to do so?
One idea that will perhaps immediately occur to a thoughtful person is the idea that “Black lives matter” is drawing attention to a problem in our social context that “All lives matter” is not doing. It’s mentioning “Black lives” where the “All lives” is entirely neutral.
The cartoon by Kris Straub (see here) suggests this idea. Someone’s house is currently on fire, and in such circumstances the response of attending to everybody’s house is exactly the wrong response. But of course it must be remembered that not all black people’s houses are under threat. Or are they? Is the suggestion that all black people are under threat hyperbolic? And if not, why use the label “Black” in such contexts?
We will of course be reminded that the people who have come under threat and who have suffered great loss are black people. But of course we might also be reminded that it is not only black people who have suffered recent police brutalities (as well as at the hands of other authorities). Non-blacks are often targeted too.
The right response at this point is to say that the pattern of brutalities which have recently come to light reveal a systemic bias in use of lethal force, and that this systemic bias is due to a racism disproportionately working against the lives of ordinary black people. It is because they are black that they are disproportionately suffering. It is not randomly that these victims are black in the preponderance. Using the label “Black” is consequently a key to combating the racism at the root of the problem.
But then the question becomes: why not say that? Why not say “Stop the racism against black people”. What does “Black lives matter” say that the more prosaic speech about halting racism does not? Here is where philosophy can make a contribution to our understanding.
Identity In Everyday Life
Race is an aspect of identity [See Harp for more on how we construct our identities]. So typically are culture, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, age, profession, music preference and many other things. Identity is the set of characteristics one self-ascribes. It contains information about all the memberships that are important to a person’s self-image, as well as characteristics that render the person distinctive or unique.
Identity is a crucial determinant of behavior. This is because it is an important aspect of the agency of humans: how a person sees themselves, vis-à-vis Others in the world, impacts their behavior. Human beings are put together that way. This way of being put together is quite different from the model of an agent in theoretical economics or even in certain schools of philosophy.
The model of rational behavior in economics is, in the language of Richard Thaler (2015), an econ. An econ is an individual who always acts to maximize the satisfaction of the totality of her or his preferences (what economists and decision theorists call a utility function).
No econ’s identity would affect his or calculations regarding how to proceed in life. An econ does not even need an identity—an identity would just be a nuisance and a distraction from the patterns of thinking and calculating to which econs subscribe.
To an econ, an identity is a drain on their cognitive and intellectual resources. By contrast, real human beings are always grooming their identities, refining and updating them, making them presentable to others. We make abundant use of them in lead-ups to behavior.
Identities are the Facebook profiles in our heads. We’ve always maintained such profiles, long before Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists have been documenting the reality of these self-profiles for more than half a decade.
“Identities are the Facebook profiles in our heads. We’ve always maintained such profiles, long before Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye”
Philosophers too, ironically, have downplayed identity in ages past. (Friedrich Nietzsche is arguably one of the few exceptions.) Certainly philosophers neglect identity when they offer models that purportedly explain human behavior, but include in those models reference only to preferences (desires), goals (intentions) and understandings of the world (beliefs).
But the reality is that identity—understood as the set of self-attributions one considers important to who one is—is fundamental to explaining human behavior from the ground up. From explaining things to ourselves, to everyday interactions, to major life decisions, identity is invoked every time. Social psychologists have since the 1960s been studying how they work.
It is still way too early to pass judgment on the idea that proceeding via identity, as contrasted with the way that econs proceed, is less rational. I think it is in fact surpassing rational. (I think that it renders us much more free to innovate and defy social expectations—by allowing us the possibility of first re-inventing ourselves—than we would be otherwise; and this is something I argue at great length in my recent book (2016).)
How is identity mobilized in contexts of action? In other words, what goes on in our heads when we employ our self-concepts to help us work out how to proceed in our present circumstances? There are a multitude of ways that identities can be modeled as shaping behavior. I will discuss only one way here.
The model of behavior-shaping that I will describe employs reasoning patterns, with a self-concept (identity) at its core. The pattern looks something like this:
Someone of such-and-such character would perform actions of type A;
I am (aspire to be) a person of such-and-such character Q.
Therefore, I shall undertake an action of type A.
This pattern speaks of utilizing reasoning patterns as an aid to aspiration—the aspiration to be a person with a certain character or characteristic. The reasoning pattern is more simply invoked as follows, without employing aspirations:
A person with characteristic X would performs actions of type A;
I am a person with characteristic X.
Therefore, I shall undertake an action of type A.
Notice that each of these instances is without question a reasoning pattern. So I am emphatically not alleging that people are forced or otherwise determined to behave as they do by their qualities or characteristics, or that the behavior in question is in some sense in their DNA (biological or otherwise). I am saying that the relevant identity marker works on the way that they reason, perhaps even via a conscious process, through their self-conceptions.
It is worthwhile stressing that the process in question works via the person in question executing a (valid) form of reasoning. Hence it can legitimately be seen as a rational process, and as such need not be viewed as involuntary.
When one adopts an identity, one gives oneself permission to execute reasoning patterns of this sort. That is, to my mind, the function of the identities that we carry around with us. (The way that our identities operate on us is very different from the way that a random belief we accept operates on us in the course of a day: our identities prompt—motivate us—to act in a very close-to-the-heart way.)
Furthermore, I don’t insist that we routinely execute the relevant piece of reasoning explicitly—though I think sometimes we do, such as when we say to ourselves: “a brave person would —–, so….” Most of the time, the pattern of reasoning works just beneath the level of awareness, but not necessarily against our will.
The important thing to notice here is that identity can work upon us either for better or for worse. We can invoke a piece of reasoning in this style in service of bravery (by inserting “brave”, for instance, in our self-concept, either matter-of-fact-ly or aspirationally). Or we can invoke this piece of reasoning in service of stereotypical behavior, for instance:
A black person would perform violent actions in this context;
I am a black person.
Therefore, I will perform an act of violence in this context.
These reasoning patterns also explain the phenomenon of stereotype threat. Stereotype threat involves a situational setting in which people who are subject to a negative stereotype, due to their membership in a stereotyped social group, are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes simply because the context makes the stereotype salient in their minds.
For example, the climate of standardized testing (for instance the testing rooms for college entrance boards) can invoke negative stereotypes of low academic performance for African Americans. Such stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. One can imagine someone performing this piece of reasoning in the context:
A black person is intellectually challenged, and therefore would perform poorly in this setting;
I am a black person.
Therefore, I will perform poorly.
Some researchers think that the stress caused by this thought of “I will perform poorly”, whether explicit or not, detracts from one’s ability to devote resources to actual task performance. It runs inference, and therefore tends to create conditions favorable to confirming the stereotype.
Similarly, a parallel line of reasoning utilizing the violent-black-person stereotype is available on the second- and third-party side of expectation as well:
A black person would perform violent actions in this context;
The person I am now confronting is a black person.
Therefore, I should expect him/her to perform an act of violence in this context.
This (also valid) form of reasoning can render an already volatile situation even more dangerous by mutual heightening expectations of violence. In these and related ways stereotypes are self-enforcing.
Identities can be good and useful when they challenge us to aspire or live up to virtuous characteristics. But they can also be used against us, by persons who trample and lay waste to our self-ascribed characteristics, by creating associations with those characteristics that result in negative stereotypes.
Politics Of Identity
Sometimes those who would rectify injustices done to members of a certain social group seek to further their cause by elevating the status of the identities in question. Think for instance of the concept of gay pride. In this way, the relevant group seeks to wrest control over how their group is thought of from those who trample upon it in the public square. And insofar as they can achieve this goal, they can regain some measure of influence over how that characteristic works on the behavior of those who self-identify as (for example) gay.
This is sometimes what people have in mind by the phrase “identity politics.” Cressida Heyes puts it this way:
“Members of [a marginalized] constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination.” (Cressida Heyes, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Identity politics”)
Members of a group can’t always reclaim control over the associations others make with the linguistic terms and phrases that describe them. Still, the effort that goes into reclaiming the associations is true activism. However there is another form of identity politics that I now wish to discuss, en route to explaining “Black lives matter”. This is the politics of solidarity.
Arturo Toscanini was one of the very few non-Jewish musicians who took a strong public stand against Hitler’s regime, refusing invitations to take part in the 1933 Wagner Festival, but accepting engagements in Palestine to conduct groups consisting of Jewish émigrés who had fled Hitler’s Germany. The Italian media consequently branded him an “honorary Jew who should be shot.”
And so, having aligned him with a certain socially problematic group, the Italian media summarily passed judgment and pronounced sentence in the very same breath. They recognized his behavior as positioning him opposite them and on the side of their enemies.
To take another instance, Leon Uris recounts the legend of the King of Denmark and the yellow star of David:
“From the German occupation headquarters at the Hotel D’Angleterre came the decree: ALL JEWS MUST WEAR A YELLOW ARMBAND WITH A STAR OF DAVID. That night the underground transmitted a message to all Danes. ‘From Amalienborg Palace, King Christian has given the following answer to the German command that Jews must wear a Star of David. The King has said that one Dane is exactly the same as the next Dane. He himself will wear the first Star of David and he expects that every loyal Dane will do the same.’ The next day in Copenhagen, almost the entire population wore armbands showing a Star of David. The following day the Germans rescinded the order”(1958, 75).
In this example, the king is doing something slightly different. He is effacing the Jewish identity, rendering it irrelevant. If a Danish Jew is required to wear a Star of David, then because every Dane is the same as the next, all will be required to wear it. The effect is the same, at least from the perspective of those who would persecute, as if the king had declared that every Dane must align themselves with the Jewish identity.
What is the point of self-ascribing membership in the Democratic Party, the Nazi Party or in any other group, whether the membership is voluntary or not? Self-ascriptions no doubt play many roles. But chief among them is that of serving to identify the self-ascriber’s allegiances as an agent on the ground.
The function of identity self-ascriptions is primarily to align the subject of ascription with a certain set of goals, ideals or movements, by way of a kind of announcement of where the subject’s efforts must be directed from that point forward. Identity ascription locates the subject of ascription within a network of agents and agencies—a network of allegiances.
Location of agency is the very function of identity ascriptions. And this is not for free. It has costs. Because telling the world who your friends are also tells the world who your enemies are. It paints the world in terms of the solidarities you recognize.
“We Are All Americans”
On Sept 12, 2011, the lead headline on the front page of LeMonde, Paris’s flagship newspaper, read “We are all Americans” in outsized letters. And in a moving gesture the European leaders of NATO invoked Article 5 of the organization’s charter, for the first time in history, urging NATO members to treat the attack on America as an attack on them all. (Ironic: Article 5 was meant to ensure America would be bound to retaliate against an attack on Europe, rather than the reverse.)
To be sure we Americans have squandered the good will the world bore us on Sept 12, 2011. (Some of our leaders have done the squandering on our behalf.) But what exactly did that good will amount to? My contention in the space remaining to me here will be that it’s the sort of good will that is sought by those who proclaim “Black lives matter.” I want to explain what I mean, and how this good will is related to identity.
I explained above that self-ascriptions are fundamentally declarations of loyalty. So when LeMonde declared “We are all Americans”, it was pronouncing a “we” in alliance with America, and consequently allied against America’s enemies. (The French are not famous for a pro-New-World sentimentality; so it was no small gesture.) NATO’s invocation of Article 5 of its charter was reaffirming a bond of loyalty between America and its European allies.
When someone says “your enemies are my enemies,” in this special way, what they are declaring is more than simple solidarity. They are proclaiming a profound alignment of interests. Their very words are proclaiming out-and-out identity. They are saying that they will take offense at the slights or attacks directed against you because they are just that close to you; they are one with you. The poets of romantic love have no potion more powerful. That potion also lends support to Martin Luther King’s oft-quoted statement: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We feel (or anyway ought to feel) injustices directed against others exactly as though they were directed against ourselves; and we most certainly do when we stand in solidary relations with them. It is our human birthright to take such stances.
Now as always, many human beings prove willing to share the fate of others who are not related to them by bonds of blood or friendship—by going among the victims of disaster to render aid without the expectation of compensation, by sending volunteers and resources to war-torn lands, and by providing for the impoverished in faraway places.
They do this without themselves having been subjected in the past to the risks that those others face in the present, and also when they are quite certain that they and their kin will not be so subjected even if they refuse help. The efforts and motivations of these unstinting souls seem to be in no way undermined by a sense of protection from exposure to these or related threats, and might even be heightened by a sense that they are fortunate in having been shielded from those threats, whereas those now in need have not been so fortunate. Such acts of solidarity reach to the very roots of our species’ sense of itself. Such is what “Black lives matter” is about.
We Are All Black
“Black lives matter” aims at this form of expression of our allegiance with black people who have fallen under the wheels of institutionalized racism, and so with black people generally as brothers and sisters under threat. As platitudinous as “Black lives matter” might sound at first blush, the urging it contains cannot be more powerful. And it most decidedly cannot be generalized by the genuinely platitudinous statement “All lives matter.” The latter statement misses the mark entirely. Because it misses the importance of the identity marker offered as an instrument of solidarity. I am be tempted to say that that “All lives matter” works against the effort to generate solidarity. Its effect is to blunt the force of “Black lives matter” by draining the latter of the relevant identity marker.
We humans know how to stand shoulder to shoulder and present a unified front against a brutalizing force, under a banner of an identity that has been wickedly trampled. And we can do it also against an abomination within our own ranks as easily as we do it against an affront to human life elsewhere, in exactly the same way.
The fable of the King of Denmark sets out one way of doing it, “We are all Americans” another. “Black lives matter” is still one more. We recognize the pattern of political urging in the encapsulated narratives, because solidarity is our own species’ specialism.
Solidarity is in our DNA. Solidarity is the very reason that we have identities in the first place: we routinely display group memberships proudly. And when we act in solidarity, we don’t require compensation for our trouble. Because when we are solidary, your gain is mine in full; so I’m compensated in full when you receive the justice you are owed.
It’s why identities are as powerful in political life as they are. It is why politics and economics—as entwined as they are—do not amount to the same thing. Deep is the instinct to lash out against others when we feel threatened, even when the others against whom we lash out are not to blame and are not the threat. But even deeper is the instinct to throw off selfishness and align ourselves in service of justice for those who are wronged or treated ill. It is our second nature. Our better nature. And it is to this instinct that “Black lives matter” appeals.
Footnotes & References
 Steele, Claude M. 1997. A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist 52 (6): 613–629.
 Steele, Claude M.; Aronson, Joshua. 1995. Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797–811.
 Straub, Kris. Chainsawsuit.com. http://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2014/12/08/all-things-considered/
 Thaler, Richard. 2015. Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics. W.W. Norton. Thalos, Mariam. 2016. A social theory of freedom. Routledge.