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Oct 4, 2020

Black Lives Matter: (Only) or (Too)?

In conversations with my Russian friends, I suddenly realized that some of them completely misunderstand what “Black Lives Matter” means. They imagine an “Only” where there is none, and miss the “Too” or “Also” that is implied. The intended meaning of any utterance can be only understood within a dialogical context: what is this a response to? What was said before, and what is expected to be said later? An utterance makes sense as a link within the large chain of the big dialogue. Here is the actual reconstructed sequence, with silent parts in parentheses:

  1. (American police behave as if Black lives do not matter, only White ones do)
  2. (No), Black lives matter, (too).

“Black lives matter” on its own, without the first presumed utterance does not make any sense. With it, it makes a lot of sense. The “No” is silent, because the first utterance is implied but not said. You should be able to hear the “No,” because this s a protest movement after all. One should at least ask what they are protesting against.

The “too” is silent for a different reason. In English, like in other languages, “Too” connotes with an afterthought; it denotes the second class that is born out of comparison with the original class of phenomena. For example, “I am tall, too” means that the thought of being tall did not occur to me until you mentioned that you are tall. If I say simply “Black lives matter, too,” that means that the thought about the value of Black lives did not occur to me before we started talking about White lives. To avoid this connotation, the “too” is silent or implied. In fact, the absence of “too” is a powerful rhetorical move on its own. It actually conveys something like “Not ‘too’.” An intentionally omitted signifier is still a signifier and you cannot skip the omitted.

There are more layers of meaning in omitting the “too.” One reads like this: “Black lives matter (ESPECIALLY, because they are in a lot more danger than White lives).” Another layer emphasizes the fact that no one really doubts that White lives matter. The utterance makes manifest the irony that we actually have to say such a self-evident thing. It provokes the listener to begin thinking “of course they do,” but then bite his tongue, to admit that the “of course” is NOT a matter of course. It forces the listener to face the tragic reality that such things have to be said at all. The important thing is that the omission of “too” is not a mistake, not a lack of clarity, but a complex and intentional semiotic device. It carries several layers of meaning worthy of understanding and discussion.

All texts, especially short ones are open to multiple interpretation. That does not mean such interpretations are arbitrary. Some interpretations are just wrong. Those few of my Russian friends who are outside of the contemporary English usage may be forgiven for the failure to understand these meanings. I would give a pass to very young, naive or cognitively impaired people. However, we also see fully grown and very American adults who present a very different discursive construction:

  1. (No statement)
  2. (Only) Black lives matter
  3. (No), All lives matter (equally)

This is a rhetorical sleight of hand, or a version of the equivocation fallacy. No one who authentically says “Black lives matter” implies the “Only.” It takes a deceptive intent to impose such a meaning on the utterance in question. I can easily prove this: give me an example of a real conversation where the phrase “Only Black lives matter” would be used. Just construct or recall a little exchange, please. I bet you could not do it. It cannot be understood in any kind of real discursive context. There is simply no plausible conversation where a reasonable person would say “Only Black lives matter.” The implied “only” does not exist in the American discourse; it is fully fictional. Objecting against it is really arguing in bad faith. It ignores the entire utterance “(The police behave as if Black lives do not matter)” or pretends it has not been implied. Moreover, it denies the existence AND importance of the police behavior that disproportionally affect Black lives.

Now, one can dispute  the very fact that police behaves in a way that that implies Back lives have less value than White ones. It would be very difficult to do given the statistics and the lived experiences of majority of Black people. But it would be at least an honest way of entering a conversation. I can imagine at least trying to argue about the facts with a person like that. However, it is very difficult and perhaps pointless to argue with a person who is engaged in a deception by pretending to misunderstand what “Black lives matter” really means.

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