Had Rudolf Carnap been around today, he’d have pointed out that “x lives matter” is not a well-formed formula. Well-formedness requires that “x lives matter to some y”. And at that, perhaps only at some time t, and only under some set of circumstances c.

Moreover, “all lives matter” is ambiguous between a) for every one of us, every life matters – which is clearly false – and b) for at least one of us, all lives matter – which is probably false – and c) for at least one of us, at least one life matters – which is very likely true.

If we’re at war, it’s the death of the enemy soldier that matters. Likewise if we’re members of rival gangs, be they black gangs, white gangs, or one of each. And so on. In fact, no lives matter categorically. So by “black lives matter” must be meant that we should be as outraged by the unwarranted death of an unarmed black person at the hands of the police as by that of a white person.

Yes, but that’s not the whole of it. If for ‘black’ and ‘white’ we substitute ‘white’ and ‘black’, what we get is that we should be as outraged by the unwarranted death of an unarmed white person at the hands of the police as by that of a black person. But we are as outraged. And so since there’d be no need to say so, it would be odd to say so. So the meaning of “black lives matter” must include the assertion that we’re not as outraged by the unwarranted death of an unarmed black person at the hands of the police as by that of a white person.

This is closer, but we’re still not entirely there. For what’s meant by this ‘we’? It can’t be all of us. Nor can it be all blacks. And nor can it be all whites. So the ‘we’ must mean some people, mostly white, but also some black. And since people don’t usually say things that don’t need to be said, “black lives matter” must be encouraging those of us for whom, ex hypothesi, black lives don’t matter, to revise what matters to us.

Fair enough. But how, exactly, does telling us to revise what matters to us bring that revision about? Damned if I know. But apparently it must, since otherwise, once again, no one would bother telling us to.

There is far more black on black violence and white on white violence than there is black on white or white on black. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Americans tend to live in racially segregated neighborhoods, and it’s with their neighbors that people tend to come into most conflict.

But is there more violence within black neighborhoods than within white ones? If there is – and I’m told there is – the explanation isn’t rocket science. Black people are poorer than white people, and violence is a function, at least in part, of competition for scarce resources. And so “black lives matter” may also mean that the ‘we’, as defined above, should be making an effort to ameliorate the poverty experienced by people in black communities.

Once again, it’s unclear how merely telling us to make this effort will bring this effort about. But apparently it must, since, once again, if it didn’t no one would bother telling us to.

In western Canada ‘black’ is replaced by those who are recognizably of indigenous ancestry. By most measures, the amelioration of their disadvantage is making only glacial progress compared to the de-racialization in America. In some measure this may be because slave labor in the cotton fields has been replaced with minimum wage labor at McDonalds, whereas in Canada we don’t seem to need the labor these people might have to offer.

So for Canadians it’s a much tougher sell to make these subclass lives matter, made tougher by the fact that there’s no one syllable word by which they can be referred. Apparently only one-syllable lives matter.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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2 replies

  1. Black Lives Matter is not intended to be a mere statement of fact or moral principle, but one of exhortation to action. Don’t just agree, do something about it.

    But that’s the problem with demonstrations. Placards have room for no more than 3-4 words. Another 3 words on a placard, like “Defund the Police” isn’t going to happen. No community with any skin colour will want to be without the police.

    If everyone agrees that black lives should matter — and no one says they don’t or shouldn’t matter — now what? Matter how? What should society or governments do to ensure that black lives matter in some beneficial way? That’s when the demonstrations need to stop and specific, practical programs need to be presented. We are not there yet.


  2. The phrase Black Lives Matter is an instrumental weapon used to create a red herring “dialogue”. Its ambiguity is precisely the point since it imprints different definitions on those with different personality traits and then uses the disagreements that arise as a result of these differing definitions as the substitute for an actual dialogue about the economic outcomes for people groups in America


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