From the Most-Memorable-One-Liners-in-Cinema file, this one’s from The Princess Bride. And here are just some of my favourite words or phrases that don’t mean what either the speaker or the listener thinks they mean:


No one thinks all lives matter. No one thinks no lives matter. And no one denies that some lives matter more than others. So to say that black lives matter is really just to say that whether some lives matter more than others shouldn’t depend on the colour of their skin. Fair enough.

But surely that invites the question, on what should it depend? Is it okay that Ethiopian black lives matter less than American black lives? And that this is true for white and black Americans alike? It’s certainly the case if what the American media covers is any measure. 

But seriously, how could it be otherwise? We’re told to “Say their names!” And so we do, if it’s George Floyd or Brianna Taylor. But imagine being asked to know and say the names of the millions of black lives over there that for similar reasons should have mattered, but apparently didn’t. 

So “Black Lives Matter” has about as much purely logical force as does the ‘might’ in “Smoking might harm your baby!”, which has precisely as much purely logical force as the ‘might’ in “Sneezing might provoke an invasion from Mars.” But notwithstanding these expressions are logical vacuities, they boast enormous rhetorical force. Just as “How do you do?” is only syntactically a question, syntactically “Black Lives Matter” is really just the banality that “Some black lives matter to some people.” But rhetorically it means something else entirely. 

Figuring out what that something is is no small task. Certainly to pick up on what’s being said one needs to have already bought into a whole lot about the history of race relations in America. But if one has already bought into a whole lot about the history of race relations in America, “Black Lives Matter” isn’t telling her anything she doesn’t already believe. So its syntax notwithstanding, it’s not so much an assertive sentence. In fact it’s not an assertive sentence at all. It’s a rallying cry. It’s a call … Well, to something. But figuring out what that something is an even greater task. What is it, exactly, that “Black Lives Matter!” is calling us to do?

To be fair, I seem to remember it once had a clearer meaning. It told cops to stop treating young black men differently than young white men. But this entreaty got so extended that, not unlike terrorism or genocide, it lost its meaning entirely. 

Well no, not entirely. It now means to treat black people as one would white people whatever the encounter, where “as one would” is to be understood as equitably rather than identically. But if that’s what it means, aren’t there equally pithy but less problematic ways of saying it?! Or am I just having another autistic moment?


The same difficulty arises with our being called to “decolonise the university!” It can’t mean what it seems to mean, because if it did, and the moment the call was answered, there’d no longer be a university to decolonise, since the university just is among the myriad institutions of colonialism. And yet no one can tell me what it does mean. So I’m left to guess. And what I’m guessing is it’s asking us not to reverse all the effects of colonisation, but rather a certain selection thereof. Or so it would seem, were it not that no one seems willing even to suggest what that selection might look like.

But perhaps decolonisation has emotive force. It calls on us not to do anything, but rather to feel something. To feel guilty that people of our ilk had colonised, and continue to colonise, people of another ilk. Never mind that people of our ilk had been colonised, and continue to be colonised, by people of yet another ilk. And never mind that the people we colonised, and continue to colonise, had colonised, and continue to colonise, people of yet another ilk. And never mind that if no one ever colonised, and was colonised in turn, the few if any of us who remained would be cowering in caves, “and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 

So the concept of decolonisation hangs on the myth that humans can be divided into colonised and coloniser – the good guys and the bad guys – and that they don’t toggle between the one and the other with the alacrity of the weather.  Some myths – for example that the Earth is flat – are true. This one isn’t.


We’re also being asked to “indigenise the university”. I’m guessing that to indigenise it does not mean to render the university indigenous. The university, at least the one we’re talking about – was not an indigenous institution, and so nothing can make it one. Though there could, I suppose, be an entirely new institution which would be indigenous, though indigenous to whom or to what we’ll have to see.

I’m guessing that by the ‘indigenous’ people of this land is meant not those who were the first to arrive here – or perhaps, however improbably, to have sprung up on this continent sui generis – but rather those who were already here when we first got here, where by ‘we’ is meant, however unhelpfully, those who were not already here. 

But putting that circularity aside, the problem is that those who were already here are here no longer. Whoever still are are their descendants. But hang on. Their descendants are also our descendants. That is, I’m told – though I stand to be corrected – that there isn’t a single person alive today in the Western Hemisphere who doesn’t have at least some Eastern Hemisphere blood. And in most cases the lion’s share of it. So by indigeneity we’re obviously not referring to blood.

If a Mi’kmaq canoe had landed in Cornwall, they’ve had no doubt thought the Normans were the indigenous people of England. But they’d be wrong, right? So why is it any different for us thinking of the Blood as the indigenous people of southern Alberta, notwithstanding they took much of it from the Cree? 

So, it would seem, indigeneity is an indexical term. Some person P is indigenous to some territory T by the lights of some Johnny-come-later J. So to say that we’re going to indigenise the university is to pick out some particular group of people among any number of other groups that could be picked out. Why are the Metis a privileged minority in Manitoba but the Ukrainians are not? Here in southern Alberta, why the Blood rather than the Dutch? These are not rhetorical questions. But if the Blood immigrated no less than did the Dutch, and if we’re privileging the Blood immigrants over their Dutch counterparts, it would be helpful to be told why.

I’m sure there are answers to these questions, but my point is that ‘indigenous’ doesn’t mean what it seems to mean, and it certainly doesn’t function the way we think it does. 

Don’t get me wrong, which of course you will. I’m fully aware that the meaning of a word morphs, because it must, with the work we want it to do for us. My complaint is that as often as not it’s entirely unclear, to speaker and listener alike, what work we want it to do. Mattering, colonising, and indigeneity are just three paradigmatic examples. I’m not sure Inigo Montoya knew what’s meant by ‘inconceivable’, but I’m pretty sure, as was he, that neither did Vizzini. 

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

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