The other day I posted this image I had captured with the sentiment “all lives matter”. Apparently, this is readable as a “rebuttal” to the recent social media meme #blacklivesmatter. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought of it like that. I felt like my words, born out of a deeply cherished value system, had been abused – chewed by other mouths. But this is the problem with words, we have little control over what is done to and by them once they leave our mouths. However, if we really want to understand the meaning of an utterance, we need to understand it within the interactive context in which it is situated. Another word for interactive context being “conversation”. I don’t feel like the present climate has any room for conversation. I just see and hear a whole lot of people talking at each other. Rolling up over used memes like wet toilet paper and hurling them at each other’s screens.
If I have been ignorant, then I have been ignorant to a conversational norm occurring on social media – that it is my ethical duty not to challenge the legitimacy of #blacklivesmatter and that to do so is an indication of both privilege and ignorance. I can understand that any statement that is hearable as undermining #blacklivesmatter would feel deeply undermining for anyone whose struggles due to prejudices have gone previously unnoticed. But, let’s imagine for a moment that someone was interested in what I actually mean and, therefore, what context this utterance emerges from:
I was lying waiting for the sun to rise that morning. My mood was dark. I had spent the night worrying for my children and the impact that an ongoing strife between their biological mother and myself (over education) was having on them. I scrolled, as one habitually does, through social media. I was impressed by the solidarity of blacked out profile pictures but the hashtag “blacklivesmatter” left me concerned. I didn’t have time to give it too much thought, we had planned to get eggs, bread and toys to the local settlement, and I needed to get back in time to see a client.
As I took a toy car out of our truck, a mass of children emerged. Their eyes looked at me vacantly. I thought it was the look of hunger until they took turns to sit in the car. Something inside of them came briefly alive. They couldn’t care about the food we had brought, they wanted to play. In that moment I reminded myself that “all lives matter”. In that moment, I opened myself up to the same care for those children as I had for my own. It felt almost unbearable. There seemed so much to be concerned about. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay and see what more we could do.
A man walked up the dirt road towards us. He smiled at me, a beautiful open smile. We don’t normally get that when we are bringing food. People seem either suspicious, angry, vacant or apologetic. No one looks us in the eyes. He was wearing a DA shirt. Wow, I thought, a most likely Zulu man living in an ANC stronghold, wearing a DA shirt (it’s perhaps important to note here that I didn’t vote for the DA). I thought about the assumptions we habitually make and how these are the building blocks to all prejudice. I greeted him and asked if he minded if a I took a picture. He seemed proud to be in the photo. We talked a bit, he helped organise the food and the kids. It didn’t feel like I was making his life matter, it felt like him and I were treating lives as if they mattered. I thought to myself, “all lives matter”.
You see, when you arrive in a township full of starving people with a truck full of food, you are in a position of power. It’s got so much more to do with privilege than race. I am the fed and they are the hungry. I can ask someone “where is your mask”, I can tell people to “stand in a line”, I can instruct how many eggs each person gets. All this time, I am treating “black lives” as if they matter, but I do so from a position of power. There is always power in privilege, independent of skin colour. But the sense of equality between the man in the photo and I, the sense that we both mattered to each other, completely disarmed me. It somehow made my position of power fall away. As we drove off, I started to sob. I sobbed so hard Fiona had to pull the truck over to try and calm me. Disarmed and open to the suffering of those children, I ached for them and everyone else who might be suffering. It is not new suffering, COVID19 has simply opened our eyes to it. In a global health crisis, where we measure how bad things are by counting the number of deaths, I thought to myself “every single life matters”.
The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, is an interesting man to follow at the moment. The academic world had mostly fobbed him off as an entertaining radical leftist with some loose, alluring yet outlandish ideas. But, as the need for complete political and economic reform becomes imminent, I think more people are slowly taking him seriously. He says things like “We do things to avoid really doing things”. What he means by this is that, especially in Western liberal circles, we pay token tributes to inequality only to, in the end, uphold the status quo. We don’t do much to actually challenge the underlying structures that keep inequality in place. It is obvious to say “black live matter” because they should. It is irrefutable that white prejudices exist. But poor race relations are a symptom of much broader inequalities. The history of our own country, South Africa, has surely proven this? We have black leadership and (although the legacy of apartheid is a lot to transform) there don’t yet seem to be any significant shifts in inequality, especially for the people who need that shift the most? I don’t think we should be talking about race; we should be talking about how we structure our society. We should ask: What radical changes are we really prepared to make in our own individual lives? The vast majority of people who made their profile pictures black last week, probably benefit from the very inequality that they are apposing, in ways they haven’t even considered.
So lets take this metaphor that was lobbed at my screen.
To truly understand this storyboard, we need to decipher what the “house” and the “hose” represent. The houses seem to represent black versus white lives? I think that this is an inaccurate representation of the problem. The houses should represent how different sectors of society are structured. The house on fire is not built with the same materials as the house not on fire and is, therefore, more likely to be burning. In fact it has been burning for way too long already. There happen to be mostly people who are black living in these kinds of houses, globally. But, not only people who happen to be black, people of other races too. And, what I really want to say when you stand there yelling “the house is on fire” is “where the hell have you been, grab a bucket and lets do something”.
What we need to talk about is what the real “hose” for this situation is. To be frank, it is not #blacklivesmatter. I think some positive things are coming out of this movement. As with the #metoo movement (which was more beneficial as it gave a first-person narrative stance) – people are coming out with their personal stories about the consequences of prejudice. But, I don’t think it will have an effect on how we actually build these “houses” in the end. In fact, I think it builds on the same flammable materials that contribute to the problem in the first place – a focus on distinctions and assumptions about race. Einstein apparently said something like: You can’t solve a problem with the same logic that created it.
There have been attempts to counter this kind of racial homogony since the late 1800’s when people like Franz Boas (the pioneer of modern anthropology) started challenging the notion of scientific racism; challenging the idea that there are significant biological differences between races. It is this original misconception, of race as a biological concept, that has served as the building blocks to what we now call “racial profiling”. As a result, when I as a white person say “all lives matter” it is assumed that I am defending my whiteness as opposed to asserting a value system that hopes to make my whiteness (and your blackness) less relevant.
Racial homogony is a clear misconception. There is very little similarity between the black person who lives in the settlement down the road from me and is without food at the moment, and my black clients who live in mansions in gated estates not too far from them. In fact, the only similarity they hold is that when they walk through the streets they are met with the same prejudices and these prejudices ride on the idea that “blackness” stands for the a “thing”. You can pick from a list of prejudices in this regard but they are glued together by the idea that blackness is a “thing” out there in the world that we can have fixed ideas about. When we make blackness and whiteness a “thing”, we give racial prejudice a carcass to feed off.
Hilary Lawson calls this inevitable tendency to reduce our understanding of the world as “closure”. He describes the world we live in (or so called reality) as “open” and that the ways we describe it to ourselves “close” it down. The means we have for understanding our reality, primarily through language, will always fall short of achieving their task. They can never keep our understanding of the world adequately open. From this post-modern perspective, language fails to describe a reality “out there” and is, in the end, constructive of our reality. In other words, the world is how we describe it back to ourselves. We, therefore, need to be especially careful about how we describe our reality. I am concerned that describing inequality as “blackness” versus “whiteness” is far too narrow a “closure”. There is no real rebuttal to the fact that the life of a person who happens to be black matters, but from within the narrowness of a #blacklivesmatter description of the problem, we risk reconstructing the very thing we are struggling against – the reduction of people to race. Surely there is clear irony in trying to legitimate black lives through objectifying them?
There is no doubt that a person who happens to be black deserves a platform to articulate their experiences of prejudice. This, I believe, was the chief mechanism of the #metoo campaign – it encouraged the first person narrative of stories that needed to be told and therefore allowed for people’s individual pain as well as society’s ill to be seen. After hearing some actual accounts from clients of how “all lives matter” was experienced as an undermining of the experience of abuse and prejudice, I can understand the concern. However, I think this is a linguistic muddle that betrays intentions. Linguistically speaking, one could argue that a lot of confusion would have been avoided if the slogan might have been #myblacklifematterstoo.
The philosophical debates around this are endless. Linguistic debates don’t change lives. But, neither does making your Instagram image black for a day. Instagram is an interactional context all of its own. It has its own “rules” of engagement, policing, social norms and underlying assumptions about reality. The most dangerous assumptions it seems to perpetuate is that it can be taken to accurately represent reality “out there”. Rather, Instagram is “a reality” of its own, one that works towards homogony and sameness through hashtag trends. It is increasingly becoming a place of supposed activism. This activism is achieved through making a meme fashionable. When I put a hashtag in front of a collection of letters, they suddenly become treated as a universally shared idea. In my opinion, it is difficult to find integrity in the ideas shared on these platforms. There is very little clarification of facts and meanings for us to rely on. Memes spread faster than global pandemics, not because they hold any real truth but because they become fashionable. Perpetuating these memes says something about the online identity I am constructing for myself. It is important on this platform to appear beautiful, liberal and free. It’s a fashion show of scant, randomly chosen, poorly thought out ideas dressed up with images. In the end, anything goes, as long as you don’t show a nipple.
The real fight – whether we are talking about access to food, healthcare, money or dignity – is against the polarization of the society we live in. Unfortunately, the lives of the people who really need to be treated as if they matter, don’t have airtime for Instagram. For those of us who do have airtime, these online dialogues run the grave risk of further polarizing our society. Real dialogue about the building blocks of inequality is what needs to happen. I don’t believe that a real conversation is happening. People are being spoken at rather than spoken with. Do we really think that by protesting “blacklivesmatter” to people who don’t treat people who happen to be black as if their lives matter will change their minds in response? I think memes such as this will have little effect:
The wife is asking “Do you love me?” This is in the first person. It is a personal account. No one is being spoken about or spoken at in this example. There are better and worse ways of creating “closure” (deciding on what is really happening in the world). According to Lawson, the measure of a better or worse closure is: does it allow us to achieve anything in the world. I am not convinced that shouting #blacklivesmatter at people is going to help. It paints the whole problem in one colour and invites rebuttal. It doesn’t tell the full story. For as long as black people’s lives are objectified rather than personalised, they risk increasing marginalisation. What about the history teacher, who happens to be white, teaching history to 45 pupils of differing races over zoom? How does she teach the chapter on apartheid without losing her job. She might have her own experiences of injustice and prejudice, do they have any room on a canvas painted only black? Her real task is not to negotiate the facts but to make young people feel seen and heard while at the same time humanising herself.
Covid19 has served as a giant global kiln; under the heat of the situation all the cracks in our society have started to show. They will gradually become more obvious than ever. They were always there. We need to be curious about what is being demonstrated about our society as a whole right now. We have finally been given a practical lesson that we are, in fact, deeply connected. When one house burns and nothing is done about it, all of the houses will eventually burn. The only “hose” for this is to treat all lives as if they matter.
This is both a value system and a mental attitude that goes back as far as ancient Indian sutras. It has been roughly translated as: “Benevolence towards all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous, compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the insolent and ill-behaved.”
It is easy to talk about “equality” on social media. Instagram has little if any impact on the lives of the least equal. Rather, it has become a place for increasing moral posturing with little, if any, pragmatic value. In the world “out there” equality is a mathematical concept that has never ever actually measured up in the whole of human history. And, it is unlikely that it ever will. The most we can do is cultivate a mindset of benefit to ALL living beings. This is why the Buddhist principle of “The four immeasurables” is, to me, helpful:
May ALL BEINGS have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May ALL BEINGS be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May ALL BEINGS rejoice in the well-being of others.
May ALL BEINGS live in peace, free from greed and hatred.
These are not just ideals that we forever strive for (even though never reached) they are considered to be states of mind. These states have been described as loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. From this perspective, equality is not something we can measure. It is something we can attempt to embody. I believe that the means to this embodiment is to enact the value that “all lives matter” at every given moment. A move away from this risks the perpetuation of all suffering.
This is why, as a therapist, I must have as much time and energy for the pedophile as I do the person who has been abused. I need to take the experience of the “bored house wife” as seriously as I do the overloaded ICU nurse. My deeply held value that “all lives matter” serves as an adage to #blacklivesmatter. In fact, more than an adage, it serves as the overriding principle. If we truly abide by the principle that “all lives matter”, then there should be no need to campaign for #blacklivesmatter. In fact, it is my view that this present meme trend on social media places dangerous limitations on social change, especially in the present global crisis and particularly in the context of South African history. Now is definitely the time for raising the alarm on social ills and the solutions need to be founded on the attitude of equanimity and cooperation.