Tuesday, June 29, 2021

What is "All Lives Matter-ing"?

A trend I've noticed in Jewish discourse recently is an uptick in people complaining about folks allegedly "All Lives Matter-ing" antisemitism. Sometimes, the complaints strike at behavior that seems obviously dismissive or denigrating towards Jewish activism against antisemitism. Other times, they seem to target statements that seem utterly anodyne or even salutary in clearly addressing antisemitism. There doesn't, however, seem to be a clear unifying thread save that the targets usually are not talking just about antisemitism -- they're either talking about antisemitism alongside some other oppression(s), or they're speaking in general terms about "oppression" without mentioning antisemitism specifically.

Does that suffice to explain what it means to "All Lives Matter" something? And if not, what, exactly, does this complaint mean? What is the proper understanding of "All Lives Matter-ing"?

I should start by saying that I'm not wild about the appropriation of "All Lives Matter-ing" in this context at all, for reasons relayed in this post. It often seems used less to illuminate a problem and more as a sort of nyah-nyah gotcha predicated on the wrong and alienating view that well obviously you'd see this is wrong if it were Black people frame that I loathe so much. For the most part, rather than grabbing language from other social movements that may or may not fit our own situation, we'd be better served to develop our own vocabulary that is tailored to our own case.

But to the extent there is a useful "generic" account of what it means to "All Lives Matter" something, what is it? Here's my rough stab at it, which certainly is open to refinement:

To "All Lives Matter" something is to respond to a complaint of an injustice experienced by a particular community by suggesting the complaint is illegitimate or exclusionary unless it is reframed away from focusing on the particular community and instead presented in more universal language.

Under this account, "All Lives Matter" ALMed "Black Lives Matter" because it responded to the particular claim of injustice identified by the BLM slogan by suggesting that this claim, or the campaign around it, is illicit and exclusionary because it is particularly about Black lives and should instead speak of all lives.

The first important feature of my account is that ALMing is necessarily reactive. It responds to something; it chastises another statement or movement or campaign that is already on the table. If it isn't responsive, it isn't an ALM statement. Consider the following sentence:

"We should treat people of all backgrounds with courtesy and respect."

Is that sentence "All Lives Matter-ing"? Not on its own, no. People say sentences like that all the time, with no particular controversy or compunction. There is no general proscription against saying banal universalistic niceties.

However, if one has just heard an account of how, in one's organization, Black employees are consistently denigrated, viewed as inferior, have their views shut down, concluded with a plea that the organization needs to "treat our Black employees with courtesy and respect", responding

"We should treat people of all backgrounds with courtesy and respect,"

with an arched voice and a tone of reproach -- that's All Lives Matter-ing. It responds to a specific account of injustice faced by a particular group by suggesting it's illegitimate precisely because it speaks of a particular group rather than of the universal "all". That, of course, is the original relationship of "All Lives Matter" to "Black Lives Matter" -- the objection was not to any sentence that expresses universalist humanist sentiments, it was to a particular sentence uttered in a particular context where it was expressly presented as a retort to "Black Lives Matter." Absent that reactive character, such a sentence is not All Lives Matter-ing.

Second, "All Lives Matter-ing" does not encompass every situation where someone tries to link different forms of oppression or marginalization together. Again, this is very obvious once one looks at the original context of how ALM related to BLM. After all, say what you will about Black Lives Matter activists who posit links between police violence in Ferguson and Gaza, or Chicago and Colombia, it would be weird to claim that they're "All Lives Matter-ing" themselves. Clearly, the objection to "All Lives Matter" is not meant to encompass any effort at solidarity or inter-group alliance.

If someone says "our experience with misogyny calls us to stand with victims of homophobia," they are not ALMing. If someone says "we oppose worker exploitation in San Juan, just as we oppose it in San Jose", they are not ALMing either. If someone says "we oppose racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and homophobia", they also aren't ALMing unless they're doing so in response to pressure which suggests a statement which solely focused on any one of those would be illegitimate for not mentioning the rest. But of course people are permitted to say, of their own accord, that they oppose multiple forms of oppression -- how weird would it be to argue otherwise? 

Again, attempts at coalition-building wouldn't satisfy the above definition of ALMing at least insofar as they are not done to delegitimize the initial claim of injustice, or to suggest that the initial, "unadorned" protest against it was illicit or improper. One can imagine circumstances where calls for coalition do take such a form, but the mere fact that someone is seeking to draw two cases of oppression together and forge an alliance among those fighting them is obviously not enough (how spectacularly self-defeating if it were!).

With this account in mind, how do the alleged cases of folks ALMing antisemitism fare? As one might guess, it depends.

On the one hand, consider a recent case where the diversity officer for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators was terminated one day after releasing a statement addressing antisemitism and hate crimes spikes against the Jewish community -- allegedly because releasing such a statement was disrespectful to Palestinians (the statement, for what it's worth, did not mention Israel, Palestine, or Zionism in any way). That case fits the ALM frame I promote above quite well -- the backlash was in response to a statement regarding the particular problem of antisemitism, which was presented as illegitimate insofar as its specific focus on Jews was interpreted as implicitly denigrating the status of other groups unnamed. Where the mere fact that a given organization is talking about antisemitism, specifically, is portrayed as exclusionary and thereby illegitimate, with the proposed correction "talk about all these other groups too" -- that's ALMing.

On the other hand, I recently had a conversation with a Jewish professional regarding how to mobilize against hate speech online, such as Cynthia McKinney's tweet about Zionists being responsible for 9/11, by working with other communities who also experience a glut of hateful and harassing speech on social media. In the course of explaining why I didn't like the (false and hurtful) frame that companies like Twitter "protect every group but the Jews", I proffered an alternative:

"Social media has a hate problem, of which McKinney's tweet is just the latest example. Jews know it, Muslims know it, women know it, people of color know it, the LGBT community knows it -- everyone seems to know it but Twitter."

For this, I was accused of promoting an "All Lives Matter" frame. Now, I'd have been entirely fine with just saying "Cynthia McKinney's tweet was antisemitic, and Twitter needs to show it takes antisemitism seriously." I have no issue with attacking her tweet as antisemitic, unadorned -- it doesn't have to come attached to discussion of any other form of hatred in order to be opposed. But it struck me as extremely weird -- bizarre even -- to tell me that even trying to present this issue in a way that presents a unified front with other groups is a form of ALM. Seriously?  If we ever try to make common cause with other groups (to say nothing of the members of our own community whose identities intersect with other groups), we're now out-of-bounds? That's not standing up for oneself, that's setting oneself up for political failure.

This is part of a worrisome pattern, where any time someone situates the fight against antisemitism as part of any larger struggle or campaign, they'll be accused of ALMing. Woe befall the statement condemning antisemitism that also mentions racism, or the social movement which tries to establish linkages between antisemitism and Islamophobia -- it's All Lives Matter-ing!

The kernel of legitimate worry here is the fear that fighting antisemitism "alone" will be viewed as illegitimate unless it is sanctified by association with these other, supposedly more prestigious, struggles. This worry, of course, is what actuates my own definition of ALMing above (a complaint about X specific oppression is delegitimated  as exclusionary unless it is folded into a larger and non-particular campaign). But when that worry causes one to lash out against any and all endeavors which locate the fight against antisemitism as existing alongside other struggles, all one ends up doing is obliterating the possibility of allyship and solidarity. That it is justifiable to fight against antisemitism alone does not mean it is preferable to fight against antisemitism alone. 

And indeed, while I think Jews are absolutely entitled to talk about antisemitism unadorned, we also should be free to decide that in certain situations it is better to talk about antisemitism as part of a network or relationship with other bigotries -- a larger practice of hate speech online, a larger system of White supremacy, a larger complex of discriminatory dismissal -- without being accused of treating antisemitism as "lesser" for doing so. It can be better because it's better tactics; it can be better because it builds relationships with other communities we care about (or, for some of us, are part of as well!). But the fundamentalist form of the ALM accusation undermines those efforts, and that's a problem. Particularly given how deeply much of our community thirsts for solidarity from other groups that we feel is not forthcoming, it is impossible to overstate how spectacularly self-sabotaging misapplication of the "All Lives Matter" charge can be.

I suspect the root of the problem, to circle all the way back to the beginning, is that often the "All Lives Matter" accusation really isn't about a thought-out analytical account of how to appropriately versus inappropriately talk about antisemitism. Its main motivator is the perception -- at best incompletely accurate, at worst absolutely misguided -- that "ALM" is an accusation people listen to, and so if we can invoke it (regardless of whether it makes sense to do so) people will listen to us too (or if they don't, we can bask in the satisfaction of knowing they're hypocrites). For Jews who feel like we can't get others to listen to us, that promise can be intoxicating -- even though when the "ALM" charge fails to compel others to listen we won't be uncovering a hypocrisy so much as we'll be experiencing the same failures others experience right alongside us.

Nonetheless, if ALM is going to become a generic charge (and again, my own reservations notwithstanding, perhaps that ship has sailed), we have a responsibility to get it right. Getting it right does not mean tossing it out like candy any time antisemitism is mentioned in the same breath as another oppression. It means opposing a very specific move, where people respond to entreaties about antisemitism by viewing them as illegitimate unless they universalize themselves. Does that happen? Absolutely it does, and it's repellant. Is that what's happening every time someone talking about antisemitism is accused of "All Lives Matter-ing"? No, and it's high time we learned to tell the difference.

1 comment:

Erl said...

Agreed on all counts. One of the worst things about the ALM-move is that it casts a pall of suspicion on the very necessary work of solidarity and alliance-building.

Re: the SCBWI incident: I haven’t been following the matter closely, but it did enter my field of view a little bit before the firing, and it seems like there was a more complex set of complaints alleged (having to do with moderation policies on internal fora, etc.) than simply the statement. If the org is attributing the firing to the statement that’s of course an ALM move, but I think more is going on under the hood than I’ve seen discussed in jtwitter discussion.