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Relevant Magazine

We Need to Talk About #AllLivesMatter

I felt a great disturbance on the facebook, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and then posted this comic:


As a general rule, if you find yourself doing what everyone else is doing, you’re part of the system. If the system is racist, what does that make what you’re doing?

This isn’t intended as a criticism of anyone who posted said comic, or a similar pithy explanation or anything like that. It’s just liberals, white liberals especially, are playing their part in maintaining a racist system. And, for the most part, these liberals are genuinely well intentioned but completely unaware of what their role is. So, let’s explore that!

First question — what is the motivation behind posting these explanations?It’s worth noting that I can’t remember seeing a single genuine instance of someone posting “All Lives Matter” but I have now seen, like, a hundred posts of why I shouldn’t say “All Lives Matter.” Ok — got it, to hang with my liberal friends, I must never say “All Lives Matter.” Message received!

I’m sure some people were posting “All Lives Matter” genuinely or this wouldn’t be a thing, but I kind of suspect that most people posting these explanation-comic type things aren’t doing it as a public service announcement. My suspicion is that they’re doing it as part of in-group signalling, aka, they want to indicate to other liberals that they are also liberal. My main reason for thinking this is that these comics made the rounds in a smaller way months ago, but there’s been a resurgence in them lately. This resurgence happened after most people already knew that All Lives Matter was a faux pas, but racial tensions were in the news again. It did not happen back when the information actually needed disseminating.

It’s a human tendency to form groups, and it’s a human tendency to want to signal this to the outside, so no judgies. However, what this particular form of signalling stops anyone from asking the deeper question “Why do so many white people feel the need to say #AllLivesMatter when confronted with #BlackLivesMatter?”

Understanding the answer to that question is going to be crucial to planning the next steps in de-escalating racial violence. This is the work white allies should be doing, rooting out and exposing the seeds of racism. However, when white allies get overly preoccupied with signalling how not racist they are to everyone, they drop the ball on examining the repercussions of said behavior. Even overtly anti racist actions can contribute to the maintenance of the larger racist system.

Why do people say #AllLivesMatter? Because they feel left out. Because they get the sense that this big, historic, thing is happening and they want to be part of it. Because they see the life that the #BlackLivesMatter has, and they want to feel that life too.

White culture has a big problem, which is that it is disconnected from life. It is disconnected from emotion. What does it take to be a slave owner? A colonizer? A SS officer? What does a group of people have to do their young in order to raise them to commit the atrocities that white people have committed?

One of the books I read that changed my life was the autobiography of Rudolf Höss, commander of Auschwitz, who was responsible for the deaths of over a million people. He claimed to feel relief when the gas chambers were invented because of the mental toll shooting so many people had taken on the German soldiers:

Another thing on my mind was the many suicides among the ranks of the SS Special Action Squads who could no longer mentally endure wading in the bloodbath. Some of them went mad. Most of the members of the Special Action Squads drank a great deal to help get through this horrible work.

Rudolph Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs Of The Ss Kommandant At Auschwitz

Instrumental in the Nazi regime was a numbing of emotions, but even they could not numb the emotions of their officers to allow them to kill en-masse. By using the gas chambers, the Nazis never had to see the result of what they were doing. They would force live prisoners into the chamber, turn on the gas, and then use forced prison labor to dispose of the bodies at the end. Finding a way to be disconnected from their atrocities, I believe, was the only way such a large scale murder could be carried out.

As much as we like to pretend otherwise, there are still echoes of the underlying philosophy of Naziism in our society. I still remember the exact paragraph I read that caused me to re-evaluate my entire outlook on life:

Even though I became accustomed to all of the occurrences of the concentration camp, I never became insensitive to human suffering. I always saw it and felt it. But I always had to walk away from it because I was not allowed to be soft. I wanted to have the reputation of being hard. I did not want to be thought of as a weak person.

Rudolph Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs Of The Ss Kommandant At Auschwitz

Like Höss, I too wanted to have the reputation of being hard. I was a wrestler, a fighter, and a programmer. I was logical. I was cold. I was unemotional. I was a person who commanded respect — or, that’s who I wanted to be anyway. I was deeply ashamed of my emotional self, which I saw as feminine and weak. I tried my absolute hardest to hide that self from the world.

And when I read that paragraph, I realized nothing was worth that. No matter how weak, how emotional, how female — how whatever I had to be — that I had to stop being that cold person. That I must be willing to absorb any amount of disrespect to not become so cut off from life. In white culture, we respect cold rationalism. But it is from this cold rationalism that our atrocities spring.

Don’t get me wrong — I believe in logic. I believe in reason (I still make my living as a programmer after all) but we must not cut ourselves off from our emotional selves. We must not disregard are emotions as an inconvenience to our logic, but rather pay attention to them. If you are doing something that keeps making you feel bad, you should probably stop doing it. This is important. This is very important.

When we disconnect ourselves from the emotional repercussions of our actions, when we drink, when we hide away the beings we kill, when we play video games constantly, when we engage in perpetual distraction, we open up a dangerous door. And this has deep roots in white culture. This has deep roots in capitalist culture.

Part of what concerns my about the hyper anti-reaction to All Lives Matter is I think a lot of white people who protest it, on some level, kind of know where that feeling is coming from. I think that they too are sort of feeling left out, but instead of trying to claiming All Lives Matter, they are mindlessly repeating the “correct” things to say so that they can be included in the movement in a different way. But to act like they don’t get the emotional base by rigorously condemning the #AllLivesMatter contingent seems emotionally dishonest. And, emotional dishonesty is far worse than posting the wrong thing on facebook.

It is not just important we do the right thing, but that we do it for the right reasons. Rudolf Höss himself ultimately came to realize that the extermination of the Jewish people was wrong, but when we examine his reasoning behind it, we see he has learned nothing:

Today I realize that the extermination of the Jews was wrong, absolutely wrong. It was exactly because of this mass extermination that Germany earned itself the hatred of the entire world. The cause of anti-Semitism was not served by this act at all, in fact, just the opposite. The Jews have come much closer to their final goal.

Rudolph Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs Of The Ss Kommandant At Auschwitz

If we keep the deeper mechanisms of racism in place, coming down the on “correct” side of superficial problems is meaningless. If we stay disconnected from ourselves, if we deny our emotional truths in order to conform to the larger group behavior, we are repeating a very disturbing pattern. You may have to endure some humiliation for the sake of emotional honesty, but it is far better than the alternative.

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