Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)
Social media has carved the eight minutes and forty-six seconds leading to the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd into an inescapable national monument. Conversations and exchanges of words that do not fit that definition are unfolding in that same social media space, and I’ve watched all this with pain. It seems to me important—urgent—to remember the way our words participate with these moments because what we say and do not say matters. And in moments like this, especially, our words are revelations. To us, yes. But about us even more.
It is, for example, true that “All Lives Matter,” but if I speak that phrase in response to a person who claims, “Black Lives Matter,” it is hard to understand how my statement is anything but an attempt to dilute and diminish the power of that other person’s claim.
The statement “Black Lives Matter” is a figure of speech—a rhetorical trope, as people in my line of work refer to it—that tries to call attention to the fact that there are plenty of actions and attitudes out there suggesting exactly the opposite: that Black lives don’t matter, at least not very much. To shout “Black Lives Matter” simply—and rightly—calls attention to the fact of that injustice and highlights a need that we should all address, and often enough, it does this at some risk and with some courage.
When people say their lives are being treated as unimportant, they might just be crybabies, of course. But that is not the only option. They might actually be right. And if they can stack examples on top of examples on top of examples of being treated as unimportant, then something should happen inside of us. The lowest baseline of virtue and common courtesy—we are light years away from Christian charity and holiness here!—requires that we should listen to that complaint. Shut up. Listen. Learn. Then work against that injustice.
All Lives Matter—written on the web in all caps frequently enough—is simply an assertion that says: I will not hear the complaint. That I am not listening. That I will not care about the injustice you suffer. It is not a witty comeback. It is deflection and discourtesy and often enough moral cowardice and, for the Christian it’s arrogance, a lack of charity, damned sin.
The rhetorical trope being used here is called mempsis. Mempsis is a statement of fact that couches a plea for assistance. You’ll find a similar use in the Great Psalm of Surrender which opens, “O Lord, you search me and you know me” (Psalm 139). For anyone who is acquainted with their sinfulness, the statement of fact implies an obvious plea for help: one that will eventually be stated plainly in the final couplet of that poem: “See that I follow not the wrong path….”
That the psalmist claims, “O Lord, you search me and you know me” (Psalm 139) does not imply that the Almighty does not also search you and know you. The opening line of the psalm hardly invites the reply (even though true): “HE KNOWS EVERYBODY!” Such a reply would suggest someone who has missed the point. It would suggest someone focused on the self, someone whose interest did not involve doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with the God who is on the side of those who suffer, those who have been told in a host of ways that their lives don’t matter so very much.
It is true that all lives do matter. But that is not the truth that matters right now.