Politics of Language. Languages of Politics.

Image by Patrick Behn.

At the start of last week’s Premier League fixture between Manchester City and Burnley, as both sets of players finished taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, a plane flew over the Etihad Stadium pulling a banner that read, ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’. While media commentators and club officials alike were forthright in their condemnations, many regular fans took to the internet to openly defend the stunt. It later transpired that the main organizer of the crowdfunded banner had links with the EDL, and photographs have since emerged of him smiling alongside its co-founder and former leader Tommy Robinson. In a Facebook post, the man expressed zero regrets for his actions, yet simultaneously denied being a racist, citing last weekend’s terror-related stabbings in Reading as reason enough for the banner to have been flown.

At this point, slogans such as ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘All Lives Matter’, and now, apparently, ‘White Lives Matter’, have become symbols around which people from contrasting political stances have rallied. The phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ in particular has become the most prominent expression of opposition against the BLM movement, and is illustrative of how language can be twisted and manipulated to suit certain political ends. I still recall my first encounter with ‘All Lives Matter’ online. It was on a viral video I saw a few years back, in which a white man was filmed strolling smugly through a predominantly African American neighbourhood brandishing an ‘All Lives Matter’ sign with obvious hostility. When inevitably challenged about the sign, the man’s sole defence was to appeal to the same reductionist logic every ‘All Lives Matter’ supporter resorts to: “If you don’t think all lives matter, then doesn’t that make you the racist?”

It was, in short, a childish stunt – and yet I remember finding it quite disturbing. On the one hand, I could not disagree with the basic logic of the phrase, since I do genuinely believe that all lives matter. Yet it seemed obvious that there was more than that simple message being pushed. Something about the sentiment behind the sign and the way it was being weaponized struck me as repulsive. ‘All Lives Matter’ appeared, at least explicitly, to be a slogan promoting equality; and yet the underlying message was clearly something far more insidious. It seemed completely absurd that a phrase such as this could metamorphose into a symbol against the fight for greater inclusion and equality.

Years later, it is clear that such outwardly innocent signs have been turned into symbols communicating more complex and odious messages. It feels necessary, therefore, to try and dissect what these slogans are actually saying, and what they say about the individuals who choose to promote them. Like any symbol, a slogan expresses both explicit and implicit meanings, such that when someone holds a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign, an ‘All Lives Matter’ sign, or a ‘White Lives Matter’ sign, they are saying far more than three simple words. The steady accumulation of new meanings can be disorientating for anyone not up to speed with the ever-changing relationship of signifiers to signified. Breakdowns in language and meaning lead to breakdowns in communication, and this in turn only leads to greater social divisions as we find our ideas and arguments buried beneath empty slogans completely divorced from their original messages.

I want to state off the bat that my interest here centres purely upon language. When I talk about ‘Black Lives Matter’, I am referring to ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a phrase and a slogan more than I am referring to BLM as a real-world movement comprised of real people with a specific political agenda. My focus, in other words, is not on the political effect of Black Lives Matter as a movement, but on the political effect of ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a slogan.

It is furthermore my aim to uncover how a seemingly egalitarian phrase like ‘All Lives Matter’ can morph into a symbol for a far-right political stance. Language is complicated, but since it is our principal means of engaging with each other and the world, it is also extremely important. Far from allowing us to communicate new ideas, language can act as a barrier to understanding, muddying the waters of truth when its job should be to make them clearer. Words always have the potential to turn ugly, and the significations they once carried can shift without anyone really noticing how or when it happened. The language we unconsciously use can imperceptibly change how we see the world, hindering our ability to communicate with anyone who doesn’t see it in the same way. We have a duty, therefore, to take ownership of the language we use, because if not the language we use can quickly start to take ownership of us.

Let us start with the original slogan – ‘Black Lives Matter’. This short phrase has gained serious traction in recent years as a symbol for many of the fight against racism and race-based injustices. For a small section of white people, however, particularly those who self-identify in terms of their own whiteness, the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ is read as a personal attack. In the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’, these people read another phrase: ‘Black lives matter more than white lives’. This is, demonstrably, an error. According to basic logic alone, if I say one thing is important, I am not saying that everything else except that one thing is unimportant. I may believe that rhinos deserve to be saved from extinction, but in saying this I am not suggesting only rhinos should be saved from extinction. If a certain minority of white people believe that improving the quality of black peoples’ lives necessitates a reduction in the quality of their own life, this only evidences an innate existential insecurity, born from a belief that relationships between peoples of different race must necessarily be structured hierarchically. For the white supremacist, improving a black person’s living conditions is a threat because the former measures the value of their own life solely in terms of its ‘superiority’ over the latter. “If black lives are to matter more”, they say, “then that means my white life must naturally matter less”. For most of us, this worldview strikes as both pathetic and paranoiac. ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a slogan threatens the already fragile self-esteem of white supremacists because it challenges the pseudoscientific theories of racial superiority their entire self-worth has been constructed upon.

If, therefore, the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ does not imply ‘Black lives matter more than white lives’, then we must agree that its message is essentially egalitarian. The implied meaning, in other words, is this; ‘all lives matter – there is no question of that – but because black lives have historically been made to matter less, it is necessary to highlight black lives mattering in particular.’ Since this doesn’t fit neatly onto a t-shirt or a banner, we can surely agree that the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ is the best way of succinctly putting this message across.

What it comes down to is the simple acknowledgment of history as being the principal shaper of social relations and structures of power in effect today. With the most basic knowledge we can state the following facts comfortably: At no time in modern history (modern here referring to everything since the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade – in other words, the true beginnings of globalisation) have white Europeans and their white American descendants been systematically targeted by ruling society on the grounds of their ethnicity. Black and brown people, on the other hand, have been systematically targeted by ruling society on the grounds of their ethnicity. This is the essential and unavoidable difference. Anyone who says ‘Black Lives Matter’ is implicitly acknowledging that the enslavement, systemic prejudice, and violent persecution of black and brown people happened not in spite of but because of the colour of their skin. To say ‘Black Lives Matter’ is to accept that ruling society has historically considered black lives to matter less. It is to admit that historical structures of racism cannot help but trickle down into today’s society so long as those same structures go unchallenged. Because the validity of white lives was never in question, because white people are able to exist mostly unconscious of their own whiteness, to childishly argue that ‘white lives matter just as much as black lives’ is to miss the point entirely. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not the refutation of the validity of white people’s existence – it is simply the assertion that systemic racial discrimination is not a problem white people in Europe or America have ever been forced to face. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is therefore a statement of racial equality. Because white lives have always been seen to matter, the focus of the conversation need not, for once, centre upon white people. The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ accepts racism and discrimination as fact, and acknowledges the need for potentially awkward conversations about both to start happening.

If ‘Black Lives Matter’ therefore implies an attitude of universal equality, what sense are we to make of the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’? This is where things start to get murky. Straightaway, we can say one thing for certain – when someone says ‘All Lives Matter’ they are placing themselves immediately on the defensive. As a slogan, ‘All Lives Matter’ exists only in terms of its opposition to ‘Black Lives Matter’ – as a standalone phrase it has no leverage, it contains no meaningful message in and of itself. ‘All Lives Matter’ is a vague and reductionist statement, and thus it provides cover to the person saying it since nobody can technically refute it. Yes, of course all lives matter, that much is not being denied. But it is not the explicit message that is the problem; it is the implied message. When somebody says ‘All Lives Matter’ in the context of a debate about racism and systemic prejudice against black and brown people, it is a deliberate attempt to undermine the debate and shift focus away from the issues at stake. The explicit meaning of the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ is universal equality, but its implicit meaning is simply satisfaction with the status quo.

When somebody holds up a sign that says ‘All Lives Matter’, they are hiding a political statement beneath a seemingly apolitical message. To support the slogan ‘All Lives Matter’ is to admit to having a problem with the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ – that much is inarguable. Aside from that, the choice to hold this sign up is a choice to say something without really saying anything at all. Sure, all lives do matter – but in choosing to state that fact at this precise moment, what you are really saying is this: ‘I feel threated by the idea that black lives matter, because it does not speak to me and does not address my specific problems’. The act of saying ‘All Lives Matter’ does not, therefore, tell me you are necessarily a racist. What it does tell me is that you are unwilling to admit racism is a problem and you are unwilling to take part in a debate about changing it. “White people have had it hard, too”, you argue. “We also suffer because of social and economic inequalities. We have also been beaten up by the police, been targets of violence, had crimes committed against us. We, as white people, have suffered just as much as anyone else has. Our lives matter too.” Maybe so, but the fact is that none of these things has anything to do with the debate being had. Individual white people, like anyone else, have suffered hardships. What they have not suffered is hardship due to the fact of their being white.  Sure, white people in general have been beaten up by the police, but not because they are white. Sure, white people in general have suffered in poverty, but not because they are white. When we talk about taking steps to end racism, we are talking about systemic, society-wide prejudice against people based on the colour of their skin. Those are the parameters – the only parameters – of this particular debate.

It would be unfair to equate the problematic nature of ‘All Lives Matter’ with that of ‘White Lives Matter’. While ‘All Lives Matter’ suggests at least some belief in universal equality, ‘White Lives Matter’ is an explicit defence of the white race alone. ‘White Lives Matter’ is different from ‘All Lives Matter’, because while the latter hides its denial of the importance of discussing racism beneath a statement of equality, ‘White Lives Matter’ singles out white people as specific victims of racial discrimination. The basic argument from those who push ‘White Lives Matter’ is this: “If black people can be proud of their racial heritage and can self-identify in terms of their race, why can’t I also feel pride for my own racial heritage? Why can’t I be proud of my own whiteness?”

The answer lies, once again, in history. History refutes our ability to consider black pride and white pride as being in any way similar for the simple reason that never in the history of Europe or European-colonised America have black and brown people systematically targeted and persecuted white people on the grounds of their white ethnicity. At no point in the history of Europe and America have white people ever been enslaved en masse because of their whiteness. That power structures in Europe and America have always been skewed in favour of whiteness is simply a fact. Any racial targeting of white people that has arisen has only done so in response to the systemic persecution of black and brown people first. To express black pride is therefore a symbol of defiance against historical structures of power; to express white pride is only to reinforce those very same structures.

Let us consider, for a moment, the fact that the ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ banner was flown in response to the stabbings that took place last week in Reading. For the sake of a fair debate, I will accept this argument at its word and assume that had the Reading stabbings not occurred, the sign would never have been flown. Even before the Reading stabbings, many people had been voicing similar arguments online; one in particular was to recall the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 and demand why his life did not ‘matter’ as much as George Floyd’s did. However, to compare the two murders and claim they are in anyway similar does not hold up under scrutiny. Lee Rigby was killed by so-called Islamist extremists, and all Islamist terror-related attacks are carried out indiscriminately against cultures and not against ethnicities. While the murder of the three innocent men in Reading was obviously tragic, to claim they were targeted on account of their being white is simply untrue. (From what sketchy reports do exist, we may even suppose it was a homophobic attack.) Islamic extremists (who are not the same as Muslims) are fighting a cultural war against the West, which is a vastly different thing from fighting an ethnic war against the white race. If you really require evidence of this, just look at the countless white people who travelled to Syria to fight in ISIS and were welcomed into the caliphate regardless of their skin colour. Terrorist killings are, by nature, random and indiscriminate. People of every faith, nationality, and yes, skin colour, have been the victims of Islamist terrorist attacks, and so to claim that Islamist terrorists are waging a war against white people is simply untrue. A culture war against Western society, Western democracy, and Western values, in no way corresponds to a war against the white race. If you think it does, that means you necessarily consider Western society to be synonymous with whiteness. That is to say, if you are someone who considers an attack on the UK (or America, or Europe) to be an attack on white people, then that tells me you view the UK (or America, or Europe) as a ‘white’ country (or continent), in which case the Reading stabbings are only a cover for you to push the same preconceived racist views you would have spewed forth regardless.

But why is this useful, at the end of the day? What lessons are we to take from all this? That people who say ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘White Lives Matter’ likely have underlying, if sometimes unconscious, racist prejudices? That’s hardly a paradigm-shifting conclusion, let’s be honest. Still, there is one other useful thing we can conclude, and that is that language is not always our friend, that words and phrases spouted forth by people with specific agendas must always be taken with a pinch of salt. If this article has done nothing else, I hope it has at least shown that language carries within it the potential both to make us think and to make us switch off. Slogans and rhetorical devices are powerful things; they allow us to spread new ideas and messages far and wide with ease. But there does come a point when arguments over specific language hinder us from dealing with the larger issues at stake, when excessive rhetoric lulls us into a false acceptance and prevents us from thinking clearly for ourselves. Language is important; it both shapes and is shaped by social relations, and as a result it is always tinted with the good and the bad of history, whether we like it or not. But language, as twentieth-century deconstruction revealed, is not straightforward, no simple set of signs corresponding neatly to a set of stable meanings. Meaning, in fact, is absent from language – it is always one step removed. What that means, in basic terms, is that we express ourselves as much by what we don’t say as by what we do.

There is, alas, no way of overcoming the inherent instability of language. All that befalls us is to intentionally strive for greater clarity and greater comprehension when we do choose to speak out. Words travel fast these days, through hashtags, tweets and memes, and this rapid circulation can end up giving ominous power to once inoffensive messages (just ask this guy). If we are not careful, phrases wielded without consideration can come to express ideas fully divorced from what was originally intended. If you are someone who supports ‘All Lives Matter’, therefore, because you sincerely believe in equality between all human beings, please know that the implications of this statement are only denying the importance of having a real conversation about racism and race inequalities in the twenty-first century.

Anyone who is commited in their attempts to accessing the truth (whether that truth exists or not) must stand against the cheapening and muddying of language through Newspeak and rhetoric. Though I do not believe that language should be policed, I do believe we each bear responsibility for policing our own personal languages. It is not enough to spout vile mistruths under the guise of exercising your ‘right’ to free speech. Each one of us is responsible not only for the words that come out of our mouths but for the potentially harmful effects they might have. We must remain conscious and reflective, interrogating ourselves regularly on whether the stock-phrases we come to rely on are meaningful or even useful in our quest to expresses ourselves and our true beliefs. We must also learn to discern explicit messages from their implied meanings, because if not we will forever be stuck in a quagmire of failed dialogue, shouting at brick walls with no hope of ever being heard or understood.

Like it or not, the act of speaking is always a political act. To speak wisely and consciously is the only tool many of us have when forces larger than ourselves begin to manoeuvre and events start spiralling away from our control. In an age where every thought can be shared without hesitation, it pays to pause and reflect not only on the words we use but on their potential consequences. We must be prepared to question the language we adopt, and to update our language when it becomes clear it is hindering our ability to think in new ways and thereby move forward. This requires self-awareness, and an understanding of the power language has to change things both for better and for worse. What it comes down to is a personal choice; the choice to speak your truths consciously and clearly. And if you are somebody who chooses not to speak at all, for fear perhaps of saying the wrong thing or for being attacked for your views, just remember that in certain circumstances silence too has the potential to speak in deafening volumes.

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