When it comes to real, tangible effects, human lives matter because other human beings say they matter. We can imagine that all lives matter from God’s perspective, but here below, mattering takes recognition. Mattering is not a given, but a historical outcome. For some of us, mattering comes easily. For others, it takes struggle. But in no case is it guaranteed. Even though I’m white, straight, and male as they come, with a credit rating that could move mountains, there could come a day when, in some concrete situation or under some political regime, I don’t matter anymore. That situation may be a hypothetical in my case, but for others, it is a daily lived reality. Everyone who is not a naive child realizes that there are lives that objectively don’t matter to American society, lives that society at large does not recognize as making any legitimate claim upon anyone.
One such group is the homeless. Individual homeless people matter to their friends and family. As a group, they matter to many activists and charity workers. But in the eyes of mainstream society, they don’t matter. Not only does mainstream society fail to set up an impersonal welfare mechanism that could eliminate homelessness at a trivial cost (after all, it’s not very expensive to make someone merely poor, rather than desperately poor). Mainstream society takes it a step further. It lays down spikes in secluded corners, puts in armrests to keep people from laying down on public benches, and criminalizes panhandling. What are homeless people supposed to do in that situation? Only one answer is possible: They should just disappear. They should stop existing. That’s how little the homeless matter to the most powerful institutions in American society (and in other Western countries as well). To say that the homeless do matter can only be a protest against a situation in which they objectively don’t, at least not to the people who matter.
So what happens when black people, seeing that there are so many ways in which they objectively don’t matter in American society, seeing that they can be essentially thrown in the trash and posthumously slandered to save the reputation of a trigger-happy cop, push back and assert that they do matter? What happens when they demand to be recognized?
They hear in response that “All Lives Matter.” And oh, what a pious thought that is! What a beautiful utopia it would be if all lives really did matter — concretely, in the real world of mutual recognition, not in some heavenly ledger.
In some contexts, “all lives matter” could function as a moral imperative, a harsh and urgent critique of our society. But in this context, even though it is saying something admirable (if vague), what that phrase is doing, what it is really accomplishing is a power play. By asserting “all lives matter,” the mainstream is effectively saying, “No, you don’t get to decide which lives matter. You don’t have the perspective or authority necessary for that. We get to decide — and what we decide must be best, as you can tell from the pious sentiment we are mouthing right now.”
In other words: “All lives matter — to the precise extent that we decide they do.” Only the first half needs to be explicit, whereas the second half is implicit in the very act of saying it. All it takes is a moment of reflection to realize this. But for many of us, black people apparently don’t matter enough to spare even that small solitary moment — even after years and years of pointless deaths. A black life does not even matter enough to think about the situation from the perspective of someone who has a gun pulled on them for no reason or from the perspective of someone who has lost that person, for no reason. Our own comfort, our own belief in the system that recognizes that we matter and therefore must be a good and wise system, matters too much to risk even that small solitary thought.