This evening, I put up a poster on instagram that I had made around the image of George Floyd. I copied some graffiti from a photo I found on the internet and thought that would be ok. Lots of valuable hashtags there and I have recently mastered the hashtag.
What I did not know was that one of these slogans (“All lives matter”) had been hijacked and perverted some years ago. On the one hand, this is the sort of thing that Humpty Dumpty addresses in Alice- words can mean what you want them to mean but that effectively renders the whole process of language incomprehensible. On the other hand, it is Canute-like to pretend that words do not change their meaning.
There is always more to learn- if words need to be adjusted and if slogans are being used in a specific way, then we need to learn about this and make sure we are not making a bad situation worse. This is a problem that has targeted one community, but it is now everyone’s fight. Blackouttuesday showed us this spectacularly. And we have to get it right.
I have therefore re-edited the poster. I do not want to cause offence to anyone and racism is such a serious issue. It may be an issue of greater prominence today in the USA but it is an issue that wriggled underneath the British referendum debate and it is one, I think, that is worthy enough to see a few words adjusted.
“Black lives matter” was a campaign begun in 2013, by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. It began in response to the shooting of African American teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of the man who had shot him. In 2014, two other African American men were shot by the police and protests particularly in Missouri led to the slogan and the campaign. It is about exposing and condemning structural racism.
“All lives matter” was proposed by Republicans, most particularly Tim Scott. It was then picked up by Hillary. The backlash was fairly aggressive. My gut feeling is that both Scott and Clinton were using the phrase fairly naively, as was I, but others were not. This was not a philosophical debate. It was about cheapening or belittling an important campaign. However, Trump has since gone on record saying that the slogan “Black lives matter” is itself racist and that seems to change the picture entirely. Trump is absurd and needs to be challenged. Even if that means accepting that fairly innocent words have been weaponised.
What is important here is that the police and the legal system have acted appallingly, and that needs to be called out. We also need to make sure that change is in place and that people remember.
By the way, I genuinely think the ideal must be that “all lives matter”, that we must be vigorously colour-blind and defiant of all prejudice in whatever form it takes. And I think, moreover, it goes beyond the human. Again, I am aware that language has changed and that the term “colour-blind”, something that I am mostly aware of in my experience of casting and being cast for parts in British theatre, was challenged in the late 1990s. Again, there is a way in which majorities who do not face prejudice have taken over these terms and effectively used them to sabotage the huge efforts being made by the BME community to achieve credible, full and workable equality. However, this was good terminology advanced during the civil rights’ movements of the 1950s and 60s, I cannot think of a better expression and I hope it is understood in those terms. We have an overwhelming duty of care to whoever or whatever is part of our life. That is mutual. It is neither patronizing nor subservient. We share our life with others, globally, nationally and domestically. We must respect and be responsible for others, as they for us.
The Little Prince
Martin Luther King talks about being judged not on colour, creed or gender but on “the content of their character”. He is quite right, but I think he does not go far enough. We should simply care and be kind to all because we all have a shared life together. As I said, I think this goes beyond the human- We can think of the story of the fox in The Little prince (I love the song in the slightly obscure lerner/lowe film, incidentally) or even of the last sentence in the book of Jonah where God defiantly says he cares for the cattle too:
“..and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?” (this was the first text I ever translated and learnt in Hebrew so I have great fondness for it. It sounds lovely and is quite funny.)
Here’s a link to the Little prince- Gene Wilder is charming here as is the little boy. We have responsibility for those we get closer to. It does not stop the little prince going away. That is something I do not quite understand. I hope I would have stayed with the fox.
We need to take responsibility for one another. We need to care more.