In 1966, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., faced a problem during the Civil Rights Movements’ ‘March Against Fear’ campaign. In the city park of Greenwood, Mississippi, a mass rally of support was held, during which Stokely Charmichael, a representative of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), proclaimed: “what we need is black power”. The Black Power movement was presented to a national audience on that day. The problem for Dr King was with the slogan itself. In a discussion with Stokely Charmichael, held the following day, Dr King argued that “each word has a denotative meaning – its explicit and recognised sense – and a connotative meaning – its suggestive sense”. For Dr King the concept of legitimate power for Black people was denotative in character, and could be used accordingly in arguments in support of the Civil Rights Movement’s objectives. Such arguments appealed to both constitutional and moral rights and were founded on reason. He perceived the slogan ‘Black Power’ to possess the ability to inspire the wrong connotations, however. It could very easily be suggestive of the adoption of violence to achieve aims that might appear to be in concert with those of the Civil Rights Movement, which was dedicated to non-violence, but which were actually contrary to it.(1)
When people raise such points today concerning the meaning of words, both explicit and suggestive, they are often accused of using semantics to either complicate an argument or achieve a different meaning to the words used. The phrase ‘just semantics’ is often used as an objection, or even dismissively, so that the points raised, irrespective of how relevant they may or may not be, do not have to be dealt with. The meaning of words is not a topic to be lightly dismissed. The best communicators understand that truth.
A similar situation to the above has appeared during the Black Lives Matter campaign. Several people have opposed the use of the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’. Dr Ali Meghji believes that ‘All Lives Matter’ is a reply that suggests that those who use it do not understand the aims of the campaign. This occurs because saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ does not mean that other lives do not matter, it is intended to highlight the fact that people across the world are denied certain human rights by virtue of being black. This is discrimination that white people do not experience. Therefore, to say ‘All Lives Matter’ erases the experience of black people.(2)
Serina Sandhu of iNews commented that some people have used the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ ‘with seemingly good intentions to bring communities together amid tensions’. However, critics believe that the phrase detracts from the immediate issues facing black people and that it is a criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. The activist Femi Oluwole is quoted in the same article as saying “If you’re saying let’s treat things as if everything equal when they’re not, you’re simply supporting a system that is already unequal. So that’s why saying All Lives Matter, when you’re faced with a situation where black people are being disproportionately killed, is actually contributing to the racism problem.” (Sic).(3)
Dr Martin Luther King Jr., was very aware of the need to use clear and unequivocal language so as to avoid confusion. The clarity of the message was always paramount. He believed that the ‘Black Power’ slogan was open to misinterpretation and that it would provoke a negative rather than a positive response. History proved him correct. I do not accept that stating ‘All Lives Matter’ is open to the same misinterpretation.
The suffering of prejudice and discrimination is not the sole preserve of a people with particular characteristic. It can and does occur to anyone who is in a minority under the authority of a majority with whom they do not share all of the same characteristics. I am physically disabled and I am and I have always been subject to prejudice and discrimination. When I state ‘All Lives Matter’ I am doing so as both a disabled person and an egalitarian. The statement is simple, logical, and all inclusive. It does not suggest that all things are equal in this world, what it suggests is that all things ‘should’ be equal, but they are not.
Those critics who claim that the people who say ‘All Lives Matter’ are ignorant of the aims of the Black Lives Matter campaign are actually acknowledging that their slogan has both a clear and denotative meaning, but also a connotative meaning that is open to alternative interpretations. All Lives Matter is inclusive; Black Lives Matter is non-inclusive in the sense that it is a polarisation of the topic of prejudice onto one specific characteristic. Dr Meghji asserts that “by saying Black Lives Matter, you are not saying that other lives don’t matter”, which is true and something that I agree with, but this is based on the assumption that everyone already aggress that all lives matter, as stated by other Black Lives Matter supporters. The argument clearly lacks logic, which is important for making a clear and reasoned message to people whose support you want to win over.
It seems to me that those who oppose the use of ‘All Lives Matter’ do so not from a point of a considered argument to the phrase, but from one of personal objection. Today, personal opinions are treated with the same weight as carefully constructed arguments, hence Professor Olivette Otele can say ‘it is disingenuous for people to say they are not trying to be dismissive by stating All Lives Matter’ without any need for her to validate the point. One person’s opinion does not outweigh another’s unless it is supported by fact and, to a necessary degree, logic, but I have yet to find any such arguments submitted on this subject. The art of debate appears to be dead. The dominant principle, not just on the subject of prejudice but all topics in the public arena, including Climate Change for example, is ‘if you are not with us then you are against us’. If All Lives Matters is dismissive of the racism faced by black people then Black Lives Matters is dismissive of the discrimination faced by disabled people. The one thing that the two have in common is prejudice, the same enemy, but as long as the minority groups campaign on an individual and not an inclusive basis then neither of them will win.
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by Claybourne Carson. Published by Abacus 2014
- Cambridge expert explains why ‘All Lives Matter’ completely misses the point
- Why saying All Lives Matter is dismissive of the racism faced by black people