By GRR Editorial Committee
Words can inflict sharp pain or heal deep wounds. They can bring issues sharply into focus or blur them into chaos. Words have power, and both the messenger and the receiver have a say in how that power is used – or abused. Consider three examples of words being misconstrued and who benefits from our misunderstandings.
In 2013, the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter” was born as a hashtag following the killing of an unarmed seventeen year old named Trayvon Martin. It grew in use as Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor and countless others lost their lives at the hands of police. It was chanted around the world after George Floyd’s death in 2020. For those who joined protests, “Black Lives Matter” was a call for an end to violence that would never be tolerated if the victims had been White. But instead of gaining universal support, the call was answered with a counter-chant: “Blue Lives Matter.” Predictably, the focus shifted away from police conduct and devolved into a shouting match between two tribes. How?
The answer can be found in two words: too and only. When advocates chant “Black Lives Matter,” they implicitly mean “Black Lives MatterToo.” Defenders of the BLM motto point out that when the American Cancer Society calls for us to Fight Cancer, the group isn’t saying Only Fight Cancer. Of course other diseases are worthy of research and funding for cures. Of course all lives matter. But the point of the motto is to draw attention to the long and generally downplayed history of deadly injustice against Black Americans. What detractors seem to hear is “Only Black Lives Matter” and react with a sense of outrage that the difficult job of law enforcement is being overlooked. But the deaths of officers in blue are widely publicized, and their killers are almost always punished. This isn’t the reality shared by people of color. To chant “Black Lives Matter” is a call to be seen and validated. It’s a call for awareness and change.
You might think that a civil conversation between tribal leaders, a balanced news cycle or a few respectful speeches from public officials could clear up this apparent confusion. Since that’s not happening, you have to wonder why. Ask yourself who benefits from the divide that’s created when we confuse the implicit words too and only. Who benefits when we start arguing over words instead of focusing on the issues behind the words?
Like watching a tennis ball being lobbed across the net, we listen as one side proclaims “Black Lives Matter” and turn our heads toward the other side as it responds that “Blue Lives Matter.” We look back to the first side of the court to see how they’ll answer. Will we hear an effort to elevate the conversation? Unfortunately, no. Instead, news stories report on a demand to “Defund the Police.”
It’s hard to imagine that its chanters actually expect this slogan to be embraced by the police, their supporters, or even moderates on either side of the political spectrum. It’s an intentionally provocative word choice. Beyond the inflammatory slogan, what the Defund movement calls for is the redistribution of funding to social services and community programs. It’s a Robin Hood goal that favors less money for military-grade equipment in civilian police budgets and more funds for non-police forms of public safety and mental health first responders. The movement advocates for programs that focus on root causes of those issues that bring police into a tense situation. Yet it seems obvious that a call to Defund the Police is more about channeling the anger of the tribe and baiting conservatives than about actually making progress toward budget changes. But “Fund Social Workers” or “Re-Allocate the Police Budget” isn’t headline grabbing. It doesn’t motivate donors and doesn’t create publicity. The liberal tribe needs a foil as much as the conservative tribe does.
Not to be outdone, the next volley across the net comes in the form of outrage against Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT is a study of how America’s historical views on race are woven into our systems of laws, housing, banking, healthcare and politics.
You might notice that the objections to CRT aren’t based on whether CRT is real – only that teaching CRT to children will harm their self esteem or teach them to hate their country. Unsurprisingly, the debate hinges on confusion created over just one word – Critical. Does critical mean “to analyze the merits and faults of a system”, or does it mean “to criticize with disapproving judgment”? Defenders of CRT argue that we should want to raise adults who can think critically to identify (and change) weaknesses in the systems that so heavily affect our lives. Detractors argue that the past should be left alone and that progress is made by looking forward. But if that were true, why do we bother to teach history in schools at all? We teach our kids (when they’re developmentally ready) about the Holocaust - not to make them feel bad, but to warn them of the dangers of unfettered power, scapegoating and the madness that can result when we become afraid to speak up. We teach history so that the next generation can critically analyze, and avoid repetition of horrendous mistakes. No one seems to be saying kids should know nothing about the past – just that they should know nothing about the parts White people would rather forget.
So who benefits from perpetuating misunderstandings over the word Critical? Who would rather have us argue over words than focus on the social issues behind those words? The groups whose power is secure only if things stay exactly as they are, unexamined and uncriticized.
Words matter, but only provocative words open wallets and sway votes.
Who benefits from the misunderstandings over the words too, only, defund and critical? Groups that find it easier to fundraise from tribes who feel threatened; individuals who seek power from angry voters who’ve been distracted from issues that are hard to fix; and media that make money on clicks and shares, not on civil discourse. Who doesn’t benefit? Nearly everyone else.