The Missing Words

police_viathomashawkThere are a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”

But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.

That word is “unconditionally.”

Now most people who make these arguments, if asked, will tell you that no, of course they don’t mean you should support anything the police do. But in practice, that is how these arguments are used. The fact that there might, hypothetically, be a few isolated circumstances where police behave unconscionably, even systemically, does not change the unspoken word. These arguments imply that we should give unconditional support by default, retracting that support only under extraordinary circumstances.

When we understand these arguments with their unspoken component, it becomes clear that they are not affirmative arguments—they are counter arguments. And, in fact, that missing word is the entire counterpoint, and what came before it was only context.

The best illustration of this comes when we put these counterarguments side by side with the ideas they are supposed to counter. Those ideas, too, have unspoken components.

“Black Lives Matter” because police and others currently act like they don’t.

“Sure, but police need the freedom to act” unconditionally.

“Our police force is racist” because they are part of a system of institutionalized racism.

“The best way to fix that is to support the police” unconditionally, because I don’t believe in institutionalized racism.

“No, the best way is to make it clear the Black Lives Matter” because that actually counters the racism.

“Well, Blue Lives Matter” more.

 To be perfectly clear, I’m not suggesting that the people advancing these counter arguments are suppressing those missing words at the end. I’m putting those words there because I think they are the best illustration of the emotional response people have when they read about police violence or Black Lives Matter. The arguments that arise are not reasoned so much as felt, and they arise from that place of default: that the system should have (effectively) unconditional support, and only individuals should receive critique. By contrast, the whole premise of Black Lives Matter is that the system should receive critique by default, and the actions of individuals should be approached in the context of a systemic problem.

The trouble is, these arguments aren’t really about the evidence. There is, in fact, evidence of systemic police racism—but when I say the arguments are not about that, what I mean is that Black Lives Matter is a social principle. It is an affirmation, not a theory to be proven or disproven.

If I’m being charitable, I don’t think the opposing views understand that in the slightest. After all, if you understand Black Lives Matter as an affirmation, your only answer should be “yes, of course!” It should never be “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter” because those are irrelevant non sequitors; why would you try to counter an affirmation?

Yet people do respond that way, and when I’m being uncharitable, I think they know very well the missing words in their arguments. I think they know that Black Lives Matter is an affirmation, and that the entire point of the missing words is to put some boundaries on that.

To say “yes, Black Lives Matter” but only conditionally.

 

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk

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