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The Inherent Violence in All Lives Matter

By Samuel Richter '20, Staff Writer

· Samuel Richter

In a 2015 clip from the Fox News television show, Cashin’ In, four conservative pundits and two liberals discuss the debate between the Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements. Their discussion follows party lines, defining the debate in terms of the two sides of the American political system. However, this understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement and the All Lives Matter slogan masks the violence that underlies the tension between the two. Instead, the All Lives Matter slogan must be understood as a violent attempt to deny and discredit the historical message professed by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

For the panel of guests on Cashin’ In, a difference of opinion between Democrats and Republicans drives the debate about Black Lives Matter: conservatives believe that personal responsibility explains social discrepancies, while liberals contend that systemic racism explains social divides, including the police shootings of unarmed black men. In other words, the show mischaracterizes the tension between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter as fundamentally stems from a disagreement between the two American political parties. Yet, this account of the tension seems incomplete. As the show points out, the Black Lives Matter movement once interrupted a Bernie Sanders campaign event, and Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Rahm Emmanuel expressed concerns about the negative effects that the movement may have on police efficiency. The Democratic party and Black Lives Matter movement are not always in agreement, suggesting that there is no causal connection between Democratic policy, leftist ideology, and Black Lives Matter doctrine. Because the movement specifically addresses police brutality aimed at black people, it is not immediately in conflict with fiscal conservative ideology. In this way, analyzing and characterizing the Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements as representations of the two sides of the American political spectrum misunderstands the tension between the two.

Instead, Michel Foucault offers ideas in Society Must Be Defended about knowledge, history, and power that better clarifies the nature of this tension.According to Foucault, knowledge cannot be separated from power relations; beneath the history of knowledge lies a struggle between what is considered “true, scientific, and universal” and what is considered “false, pseudo-/unscientific, and localized.” In other words, power relations decide and reinforce what does and does not count as true knowledge, as well as who is able to speak it. In turn, the knowledge that is dismissed as untrue becomes “subjugated knowledge”, or knowledge buried by society. From this perspective, the Black Lives Matter movement is an example of what Foucault calls “an insurrection of subjugated knowledges”, where the subjugated knowledge about police brutality in black communities actively challenges the (once-)common notion that the United States is a post-racial society. In this way, the debate between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter is not a discussion about differences in political opinion, but an argument about what should be politically recognized as the truth.

Foucault argues that an accurate representation of historical struggles depends on the consideration of all knowledges, subjugated or otherwise. This reflects his assertions about the function of telling history. He distinguishes between Roman-style history and Hebraic-biblical history. Roman-style history serves to justify and reinforce the power structure through mythos-building and assurances of legitimacy. The Hebraic-biblical history, on the other hand, is the history told by the dominated that seeks to delegitimize this Romanesque history by declaring, “[W]e had no glory and we had no rights, and that is why we are beginning to speak and to tell of our history.” Therefore, what we generally consider “History” is actually the product of the competing histories professed by the powerful and the powerless. 

According to this conception of history, the Black Lives Matter movement tells the history of black people being targets of police violence in order to reject the glorified, Romanesque history that claims America overcame racism during the civil rights movement. In response, the slogan “All Lives Matter” attempts to preserve Romanesque history by discrediting and re-subjugating Black Lives Matter’s localized knowledge. This attempt reflects the history of kings who “tried to make it look as though they were acting on behalf of all and in the name of all.” All Lives Matter attempts to discredit subjugated knowledges in order to deny that (1) the current power structure depends on the practice of violence, and (2) there exist divisible, subjugated groups within the cohesive body-politic. In this way, the declaration “All Lives Matter” must be understood as a violent denial of black American history.   

Critics may suggest that the violence identified here only appears when one over-analyzes the disagreement between the two movements. If this critique is true, then the meaning of the debate should be immediately clear. However, the slogans of the two movements demonstrate that the meaning of the debate is actually ambiguous. The literal meaning of Black Lives Matter’s slogan is clear: it asserts that “black lives matter.” For this reason, if the debate was straightforward, All Lives Matter’s slogan should disagree with the proposition “black lives matter.” Yet, the two are not in disagreement. Indeed, when somebody says, “all lives matter,” they are logically implying that black lives matter, too. Thus, according to the literal meanings of the two slogans, no debate exists.

Of course, because a debate does exist, the All Lives Matter slogan must be said, not for its literal meaning, but for its representational or symbolic meaning. As has been argued, the declaration of “All Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter” functions as an attempt to reincorporate (and therefore subjugate) black history back into the Romanesque American history. This function serves as the meaning for the slogan “All Lives Matter”.  In this way, the application of Foucault’s concepts to the debate cannot be an over-analysis, because, without this analysis, the debate would be meaningless. 

This critique and the opinions espoused on Cashin’ In demonstrate why the conflict between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter cannot be understood in nonviolent, American partisan terms. Violence is integral to the tension between the Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements, so it cannot be overlooked. For this reason, the slogan All Lives Matter is best understood when it is conceived of as a violent attempt to deny and discredit the historical message professed by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

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