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  • Hannah McHugh

‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘All Lives Matter’? Two approaches to liberation


Since the Enlightenment, the idea that all are equal, and that all should have equal civil and political rights has been the basis of our dominant liberal ideology. Our laws and our states, according to this ideal, ought to address all in universal terms that apply in equal form and measure to each and every citizen. This is thought to be the route to eliminating oppression and group injustice. This then, is one basis, of the claims of those who in recent weeks have responded to ‘Black Lives Matter’ by chiding that ‘All Lives Matter’.


Contrastingly, despite the prominence of this liberal ideal, social movements such as BLM have rejected this route to equality, and have sought to assert their cultural and group specificity. They instead express cultural pride in their difference as part of pushes for liberation from oppression. They focus on the needs, injustices and identities that define one particular societal group, and argue these differences should be central to the way in which they participate in societal institutions. They seek to affirm particularities of what it is culturally and experientially to be a Black citizen of countries such as the US and UK. This represents an alternative approach to liberation and belies the rationale for having a movement entitled ‘Black Lives Matter’.


I explore here the idea that these two approaches represent competing approaches to liberation from oppression within societies, and that these approaches underlie reasons to adopt the opposing slogans of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘All Lives Matter’. These approaches I refer to as ‘difference assertion’ and ‘difference blindness’.


Of course, there are so many ways in which all lives matter. However, we must be wary: to seek to replace the ‘Black Lives Matter’ ideal could serve to silence the oppressed. To ignore their oppression, or worse, to deny it. Moreover, to frame social policy aims under a framework of difference blindness is to implicitly seek an assimilation of culture based on unachievable and, I argue, undesirable ideals of universalisation that has continually produced systemic injustices.


The ideal of difference blindness


In a utopian society, where race, gender or sexuality are regarded as the functional equivalent of the colour of our eyes in today’s world, it would seem evidently just that the law, rights and obligations within a society should be identically applied to each and all individuals. Group differences would have, for all relevant political intents and purposes, ceased to exist. Our institutions would be blind to difference.


There are advantages to this approach. It recognises the arbitrariness of group-based distinctions that in the utopian society are unnecessary and normatively unimportant. It is based upon a clear standard of justice that asserts ‘all ought to be treated identically according to the same principles, rules and standards’. It therefore represents an unambiguous standard of equality. It seems to also suggest that any kind of differentiation of rules for particular groups would be an instance of injustice.


Belying this ideal is the assumption that there must be a neutral standard against which all can be measured. This ideal leads to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to policy making, in the name of equality. Consider how, for example, gender blindness as a policy goal leads to women and men having the same standards and laws applied to them. The fact then, that women remain disproportionately unrepresented in top management or politics cannot be said to be the fault of the society’s organisation. After all, they are treated the same as men. Except, how often are we aware of women facing ‘invisible’ barriers: being termed ‘bossy’ if they are assertive, or ‘meek’ if they are more gentle-mannered? Although women make up 51 per cent of the population, they are only 29 per cent of MPs, 25 per cent of judges and 24 per cent of FTSE 100 directors. This suggests then, that the same standards, when applied, have different outcomes given the difference of women to men.


Effectively, in most societies, it is not truly a ‘neutral’ standard that we are applying through our difference blind policies in the majority of cases. It is one that appears neutral to those in the more powerful groups. The perception of neutrality in policy-making is so often illusory. The standards of the most powerful are applied to all others universally, despite those standards’ specificity to the needs and particularities of only one group. In fact, what this approach serves to achieve, is to allow those in the dominant group to ignore their own difference to other groups. To consider themselves neutral and even perhaps depoliticised. The burden of non-dominant groups is to be fiercely aware of their difference; be it their race, gender, sexuality or otherwise. Blindness to difference disadvantages groups whose experience, culture, and socialised capacities differ from those of privileged groups. Their identity is inherently politicised as one which is disadvantaged as compared the dominant social group(s).


There are outliers to this contention. Some individual members of minority groups do succeed in the difference blind society. However, what may be necessary for them to achieve this success is a form of renunciation of cultural identity and an affirmation of the values of the ‘neutral’ standards belonging to the dominant group. Or perhaps more moderately, a clear distinction between particular successful individuals and their social group more generally. Consider how many have claimed that Obama was a ‘deracialised’ politician, who ultimately failed the black community in his policy making. The argument suggests he was no longer truly a representative of the Black community in the US, instead operating within a system that did not recognise the particularities of many minority cultures in the US. To a measurable degree, even if not in totality, successful members of minority groups must ‘transcend’ their group ethnicity or specificity in order to climb the ladder of the society’s hierarchy. Do we, contrastingly, expect white and male politicians to transcend their specificity? It seems not. Liberation of whole groups, not just individuals, could mean basic – although significant – institutional changes. For example, some have long advocated group representation in policymaking and an elimination of the hierarchy of rewards that forces everyone to compete for scare positions at the top[1].


Why favour an ideal of difference assertion?


There are many reasons why groups seek to assert their difference instead of to see this as a depoliticised feature of their identity. Advocates of LGBTQ+ liberation seek not only civil rights, equivalent to those of all citizen, but also affirmation as social groups with specific experiences and perspectives. Consider how the words ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ once manifested insults to members of these social groups but have now been re-appropriated and transformed by the community into terms of pride. The right to access society’s institutions, and to conduct oneself according to one’s own identity and nature, prevails as a standard of equality over the mantra of being ‘no different from anyone else’, or to being met with the type of difference blindness I have described. Positive self-definition of group difference is, for these groups, more liberating than assimilation into the ‘neutral’ ideal. Whilst the historical approach to liberation of those in the LGBTQ+ community has appeared to tolerate any behaviour so long as it is kept private, the gay pride movement asserts that sexual identity is a matter of culture and politics, and not merely ‘behaviour’ to be tolerated or forbidden. The want to be treated as different is not to be confused with seeking inequality; it is a means of achieving equality.


Currently, we do not exist in such a utopia as the difference blind society. Our societies are structured by groups which experience varying degrees of privilege and oppression. One fundamental reason why to assert now that ‘All Lives Matter’ is problematic, is that it ignores the fact that we are starting from the position of this world in the year 2020. Not in the planning stages of new society, with no present systemic inequality or injustice. Difference blindness of this type adopts a strategy of seeking to treat disadvantaged groups in the same way as presently advantaged groups. This ignores the reality that some groups are coming into the game after it has already begun. This strategy implies asking these groups to adopt the rules and standards set by privileged groups, and allows for ignorance of the cultural and experiential specificity of these rules. Real differences between groups make it difficult for those on the periphery of the social hierarchy to meet the standards set by those at the apex. Consider how the right to hold property and to purchase land is held equally by all, but, given the systemic advantages of White Americans following the era of slavery, does nothing to aid the perpetuated inequality in land ownership faced by the Black community.


Whilst privileged groups look to universalised and neutral standards, to which they easily conform, oppressed groups are seen as different; they are marked with an identity which is ‘Other’ to the norm. This sits in contrast with contrived ideas of rational, depoliticised citizens who find it obvious that all lives should matter, as they have never needed to highlight that white lives matter.


The BLM movement promotes a notion of group solidarity against the individualism of the liberal ‘neutral’ society we currently find ourselves in. It calls upon us to recognise our own particularities and specificities, not to affirm the idea that we all matter. Need to see the particularities of each group. We must stop pretending that there is a form of formal equality that is equally accessible to all; it’s not the case. Perhaps, it should not even be the aim. Difference assertion instead looks like a more attractive road to equality, that involves less compromise of our group identities.


Social movements, like BLM, rely on ideas of group specificity and cultural pride. We may ask: why do social movements rely on this assertion of their group identity, and why has this been associated with resistance? Why not instead seek to find a way of organising society in a way where cultural difference has no place in political discussions? The answer is that social identity has been asserted in this way because our aim of seeking difference blindness has in reality meant blindness to oppression. It has led to attempts to assimilate cultures into one identity. It has obscured the ability of the privileged to recognise our position as such, and to see the barriers that other groups face within our societies. Asserting difference has been forced in this context to look like resistance. As deviation from the ‘neutral’ norm. Those who do not naturally conform to the ‘neutral’ standards are again positioned to look like these deviants. To treat them equally will require that we recognise their difference, as well as our own.


For all lives to matter in an equal way, we must address group specificity and acknowledge our differences instead of seeking to ignore the reality of them or to impose a brand of universal equality that leads to the systemic oppression of some groups. Universal policies that are blind to differences of race, culture, gender, age or disability have perpetuated rather than undermined oppression. It seems then, BLM calls upon us to take a new direction: one that requires group conscious policies of affirmative action in so many cases; recasting the image of groups marked as ‘Other’ as ‘different’.


Of course all lives matter, but without recognising our differences, some will always appear to matter more than others.

[1] For example, Young in Chapter 6: Social Movements and the Politics of Difference in Justice and the Politics of Difference

[2] Photo by noah eleazar

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©2020 by Hannah McHugh