Three word slogans where the words are chosen to fit the mood of the time can have great mobilising potential. In the United Kingdom ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’ had the power to win a referendum and an election respectively. ‘Peace, Bread, Land,’ and ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ played their part in stupendous revolutionary upheavals in the Russian Empire and in Ancien Régime France. And now we have ‘Black Lives Matter.’
There are two fundamental assumptions, I would argue, which underlie the use of this slogan. Firstly it presupposes that there is a powerful belief within society that black lives do not matter, or at the least that they matter less than non-black lives, and that this belief leads, or has led, to significant numbers of avoidable deaths. Secondly that such a belief is, or would be, a moral wrong of sufficient power to mobilise forces strong enough to defeat it. In the context of the United States of America that would mean that it was simultaneously true that black lives were treated with contempt by white Americans and that most white Americans would be so shocked by such a state of affairs that they would seek to change it.
It is possible for both things to be true at the same time but it would require a complex and sophisticated argument to demonstrate such a case and movements which primarily rely on three word slogans seldom engage in such a form of argumentation. The first presupposition, that American society is murderously racist, is loudly and frequently asserted whereas the second presupposition, that most Americans are so well motivated that they will respond positively to demands to make America less racist, remains wholly unstated. And, since Black Lives Matter is now an international movement the same presuppositions have been mechanically repeated elsewhere in the world regardless of the differences in history, culture, patterns of migration, demographics and legal frameworks between the dozens of countries where the slogan has been taken up and the mother country where the whole thing started.
But it is the second presupposition which is actually the most important one. A ‘Gladiator Lives Matter’ movement in the Roman Empire of, say, the 1st Century BC would have had no resonance beyond the actual gladiator population itself. Most everyone else would have thought “no they don’t,” and would probably have thoroughly approved of public crucifixions of GLM activists. In the 21st Century, by contrast the public consensus, the laws of the State and the assumptions of all those who wield power in Western countries is that ‘Yes, black lives do matter, and if aspects of society function contrary to that assumption then they require to be fixed very quickly.’
Why does that assumption exist? And why is it so baked into the cake that BLM activists can rely on it as being powerful enough to not only mobilise people on their side but also to paralyse those who hold State or Corporate office to such an extent that they will not resist BLM demands? There is an obvious way to explain the difference between those centuries BC (before Christ) and those afterwards. That is that a paradigm shift took place- slowly, unevenly and with numerous anomalies- which shifted societies from a belief that some lives mattered more than others to one which supposed that each life mattered because each life was precious. That new belief sometimes only has an ‘official’ character, in the sense that it exists just in the theory of a society not in the practice of its daily life. But the mere existence of the official theory gives those excluded from its application a moral weapon of great power which no one had before that theory was officially adopted. Which is to say that Black Lives Matter campaigners can hope to succeed because the sea in which they swim, Western societies, is totally infused with a values-system that is consonant with the demands which they are making.
In the context of such societies the rival slogan ‘All Lives Matter’ is less emotionally intelligent and so has less obvious potential for mobilisation. It appeals to the generic, disembodied idea of ‘all lives’ and not to the particularity of each life which the value-system believes should be cherished, not just because it is a life but also because it is this life, this particularity, this unique story. Black Lives Matter speaks to these values, to this deeply rooted emotional sense, because it points to situations where it claims that both the generic value, all lives, but also an aspect of particularity, black lives, is being violated. It claims that the responsibility which the strong have to allow each of the weak to flourish and to grow into their own individual life is not only being left unfulfilled but that the opposite is being done that the particularity because it is a particularity and the weakness because it is weakness is being trampled upon and in some cases murdered.
I do not propose to enter into the question of whether or not that claim is factually true. What is important is that in societies such as those of the West in 2020 it is sufficient that enough people believe it to be true for the status quo to be rocked (no pun intended) and for the world to be changed; one way or the other. And what makes that at all possible is precisely that values-system which has succeeded in percolating the West since the years before Christ. And what is that system? How did it bring about such a paradigm shift? This is the question that the historian Tom Holland addresses in his book ‘Dominion’- “Humanism derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible: that humans are made in God’s image; that his Son died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female.”
It is a feature of the unrest provoked by the Black Lives Matter movement that many of those revolutionary organisations of the Left which have flung themselves most enthusiastically into the struggle are also vehemently opposed to ‘religion’ (by which they mostly mean ‘Christianity.’) What they fail to grasp is that their hopes for victory do not rest primarily upon the fact which they conscious presume, that racism is a deliberate and murderous feature of Western societies, but upon the the fact which they have unconsciously accepted, that in Christianised countries most people sympathise with victims and despise victimisers. These sympathies are not ‘natural’ in the sense that people are born with them, they become as-if-natural after centuries of people being habituated to them through the regular teaching of Gospel stories and their associated philosophies. Black lives only matter as black lives in places where children have been taught from the cradle upwards that each life matters.
The picture (artist unknown) depicts the Spartacist revolutionaries being crucified along the Appian Way.
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