Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Not to Do Things with Words: "Black Lives Matter"

The title to this post is a little play on the title of a work of the philosopher J.L. Austin called How to Do Things with Words.  What prompts me to write it are the antics of the unfortunate Mr. Trump, the maudlin Mr. Beck, and the increasingly squirrelly Mr. Giuliani and others regarding the name of and the movement known as "Black Lives Matter."  It's their commentary on the name or the words which make it up which I find particularly interesting.  Their commentary seems to me to be a kind of rhetoric we hear all too often in these grim times from politicians and pundits of all breeds (the comparison with animals we breed is intended, I'm afraid; this particular kind is fed on our money, but sadly we don't benefit from them as we do from other livestock).

What we hear is that the name "Black Lives Matter" is inherently racist.  The use of the word "inherently" in this case is odd, words and names not normally being "inherently" anything but words and names.  Something is inherent in someone or thing when it is essential to it, a primary quality of it, one of its elements.  Words and names, if they're racist, are more probably considered racist because they're used by particular people in particular ways except in extraordinary circumstances.  That of course is to say that they're not "inherently racist" in almost all cases.  The words in question in this case are not separately or taken together inherently racist in any respect.

I'd like to credit those making this claim with sufficient intelligence to know this is the case, though I do wonder, sometimes.  I doubt they actually mean "inherently," in other words.  They may not know what it means, however, to say that the name "Black Lives Matter" is inherently racist.  It is impossible to overestimate the ignorance of our politicians and pundits in certain matters.

They seem to take the position that when one says "black lives matter" one necessarily claims that lives which are not black lives don't matter.  There is no other way to explain their contention in response that "all lives matter" or their apparent outrage at the name/phrase.  But it's very clear that it doesn't follow that by saying that black lives matter one is saying that those are the only lives that matter.  It's simply to say that black lives matter.

It doesn't require much in the way of thought to recognize that the name, and the "movement" as it's called, have their basis in the belief that law enforcement doesn't think that black lives matter; the belief that certain police have such disregard of black people or hatred of them that they either don't care if those lives are taken and by them, or want to take those lives when they can.   In other words, the name is in response to what seems to those who use it a belief among law enforcement officers and others that, in fact, black lives don't matter, or don't matter as much as the lives of other people.  Contrary to that belief it's claimed that black lives do matter.

Now it's to be presumed that none of the above individuals would say that black lives don't matter, so we have to think that isn't the cause of their problem with the name.  Perhaps those who claim the name is inherently racist wouldn't be inclined to do so if the name was "Black Lives Matter as Much as Other Lives" or "Black Lives Matter Too."  Anything is possible.  The added words seem unnecessary except perhaps to the hypersensitive or dull, but I at least would have no problem if they were added and I doubt others would.  

A cynic like me would think it possible that the claim being made about the name and the indignation and outrage associated with it are rhetorical tactics being used in an effort to discredit the movement.  More likely, perhaps, the problem lies in a failure to think thoroughly about words and their use.  Or perhaps a failure to think well generally.  We don't do much thinking these days, or at least have no desire to think critically.

Those that make it this far in reading this post will be aware that I've said nothing about the movement or its actions, or the incidents referred to which are said to have caused the movement to exist.  That, I think, would require much more knowledge and study on my part for me to comment on intelligently.

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