Please, from one Mormon to another, please don’t use the hashtag #alllivesmatter. Here’s why:
The #blacklivesmatter movement has been in the news recently as people have been marching under that banner (literally, but not just literally) to protest recent repetition of what has become a too familiar narrative of police killing unarmed black men. In my own city, there were over 70 arrests of #blacklivesmatter protesters last night.
And in the face of these protests, some people I love and care about (most of whom are members of the church and are almost all white) have used the #alllivesmatter hashtag to express disapproval of the #blacklivesmatter protests. For many of them, I think it is at least in part because they genuinely feel like it is wrong or divisive to single out some lives to affirm that they matter. When they hear people saying #blacklivesmatter what they think they hear is that black lives matter more than other lives. And those who are trying to make it clear that #blacklivesmatter, when they hear people saying #alllivesmatter, have expressed frustration, because too often, those who have said #alllivesmatter, have used it as a response to negate and shut down those who say #blacklivesmatter.
Some of those who say #alllivesmatter are genuinely puzzled over why #alllivesmatter is so offensive. And I can see where they are coming from, because it is literally true that all lives matter, just as it is true that #blacklivesmatter. Why should something that is literally true be offensive?
Well, because as Elder Packer once (in)famously said, “some things that are true, are not very useful.” Just because something is literally true, that does not mean that it is wise or charitable or appropriate to say it in any context, regardless of whether it is hurtful. If we are trying to live a life of faith, hope, and charity, as the church calls us to do, then in addition to making sure that what we say is true, we also need to think about what effect saying it will have on other people–especially people who are less privileged and already hurting–how it is likely to be understood (or misunderstood), whether it will be more likely to result in more hurt feelings and escalation, or whether it will result in reconciliation and understanding. We have a responsibility to think about refraining from saying things that may hurt others–again, especially people who are less privileged and already hurting–and to say the things we do choose to say in a way that will minimize, if not eliminate, hurt to others. After all, Jesus blessed the peacemakers as the children of God, but there is no beatitude for the truth-tellers who speak without considering the effects of their words. Let us oft speak kind words to each other.
So just because it is literally true that all lives matter, that does not mean that it is appropriate to say it in any way and in any forum at any time. And in particular, it does not mean that using the #alllivesmatter hashtag to rebuke #blacklivesmatter is appropriate.
Think about the exchange between Jesus and the disciples in the house of Simon. The woman who anointed Jesus with costly ointment was essentially saying, “Jesus’ life (and death) really matters a lot right now.” But the disciples “had indignation,” and said that this woman’s act was wasteful, because the ointment could have been “sold for much” and given to the poor. Essentially, they were saying, “Why are you wasting all this attention and money, don’t you know that all (poor) lives matter?” The disciples were literally right that the church has a responsibility to care for the poor, and it was literally true that the ointment could have been sold for much and given to the poor. But they were wrong to express that truth at that time and place and in that way because they were speaking out of indignation against the woman, not love for the poor. So Jesus rebuked them, quoting the Old Testament to point out that of course they should care for the poor, but that doesn’t mean that this woman’s concern for Jesus in that particular moment was wrong.
By doing what she did, the woman was not disputing the need to care for the poor, so it was wrong for the disciples to use the truth that we should care for the poor–even though it was true–to rebuke her.
So let’s go back to #blacklivesmatter and think about what it means and what it does not mean. #blacklivesmatter does not mean that #blacklivesmatter more, or that only #blacklivesmatter. It means just what it says and no more: black lives matter. As others have pointed out, you can also read it with an implied “too” in #blacklivesmatter. #blacklivesmatter(too), #blacklives(also)matter.
But don’t just think about whether it is literally true that #blacklivesmatter (of course it is). Think also about why people say #blacklivesmatter: It is not because they think that black lives matter more than other lives, it is not because they don’t think that all lives matter. It is a response to something. #blacklivesmatter did not come out of nowhere; there is a history here. It is a response to the reality that despite whatever progress we think we’ve made on racial equality, in most places in this country black women and black men are more likely to be detained, handcuffed, killed, arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed than white people engaging in the same behavior; the reality that even though there are many many good police officers, police officers can kill black men or women often without having to even stand trial to let a jury decide whether it was murder or not. The message that that reality sends is that black lives don’t matter.
So when people say #blacklivesmatter they are saying: Yes they do! And when someone uses the hashtag #alllivesmatter to rebuke #blacklivesmatter, the message it sends, intended or not, is “No they don’t.”
Maybe you think, yeah, but I would never say that somebody’s life doesn’t matter and it’s not my fault that people take #alllivesmatter to mean something that I didn’t intend to say. But history can help us to understand why that’s the message that #alllivesmatter sends. Remember the beating, raping, stealing, and burning committed against Mormon settlers in Missouri and other places. The saints weren’t wholly blameless in those conflicts, and it’s probably true that at least some of the members of the militias and mobs that perpetrated such persecution were genuinely afraid for their lives and communities should the saints be permitted to stay. But we understand that didn’t mean that the mobs and state militias were justified in trampling their due process rights. So it would be easy to get defensive if somebody says that the saints weren’t totally innocent, or that the mobbers and militia were just acting out of what they thought was self-defense. Now imagine that, in in the aftermath of the Missouri persecutions, the Times and Seasons had chosen “Mormon Lives Matter,” for its slogan. Then imagine that the Warsaw Signal or the Nauvoo Expositor had responded with the slogan “ALL Lives Matter.” Can you understand how that could easily be interpreted as denying that Mormon Lives Matter?
Unarmed black men and women get killed by police officers repeatedly. Message sent: Black lives don’t matter.
Response: “#blacklivesmatter!” Message sent: Black lives do matter.
Counter-response: “No, #alllivesmatter!” Message sent: No they don’t.
Taking #blacklivesmatter as a statement that other lives don’t matter, or matter less, assumes that mattering is some kind of zero-sum game, and that saying that one life matters implies that other lives don’t matter. But that kind of comparative thinking is wrong.
Jesus once told a story of an employer who goes out to the marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He goes out at the third hour and hires some workers, agreeing to pay them one day’s wages. He goes out again at the sixth and the ninth hour and does the same thing. He goes out again at the eleventh hour, when the workday is almost over, and finds laborers standing idle because no employer has hired them. He agrees that he will pay them “whatsoever is right” and hires them. When the workday ends, he begins to pay, and gives the eleventh hour laborers one day’s wages. The laborers who were hired earlier in the day get very excited, thinking that this means they will get more than the one day’s wages that they bargained for. But the employer gives them all the same: one day’s wages. At this, the other laborers begin to complain that he has “made them [the eleventh hour laborers] equal to us,” which isn’t fair because the eleventh hour laborers didn’t have to work through the heat of the day. At this, the employer responds: “Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”
When the lord of the vineyard gave the same wages to the eleventh hour laborers, he was, in effect, telling them, “your labor is valuable [that is, it matters] to me.” But when the other laborers saw that, they engaged in comparative thinking, and concluded that by paying the eleventh hour laborers’ the same, even though they had worked only an hour, what he was really saying was not just that the eleventh hour laborers’ labor was valuable, but that their own labor was less valuable. The lord of the vineyard corrected them by teaching them not to engage in such comparative thinking: “Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” Does the fact that their labor is valuable mean that your labor is not valuable? Of course not, is the obvious answer.
So when we as Mormons hear #blacklivesmatter, we should not engage in comparative thinking, hearing that black lives matter more, or that only black lives matter. That’s not what #blacklivesmatter means.
Friend, #blacklivesmatter does thee no wrong. Does thy life matter less, because #blacklivesmatter?
Of course not.
So please don’t say #alllivesmatter. Not now. Not as a slogan or a hashtag to shout down #blacklivesmatter. Because black lives do matter, and mattering is not a zero-sum game.