Reflecting: Black Lives Matter

Throughout my teaching career I have engaged in many ethical debates with young people and it has always been apparent to me just how important the notion of equality is to your thinking. But unfortunately the equality that is so clearly valued is often captured by the rather infuriating phrase ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion.’ I am sure that you use this phrase because you really do want to protect the dignity of all people. But unfortunately it isn’t always true. We are not always entitled to our opinion.

Of course, it is true in certain situations. If I think strawberry shortcake is the best flavour ice cream then you can’t really argue with me. You might not like strawberry shortcake ice cream but my preference for it is beyond question. But you have every right to argue with me if I was to say that climate change is a hoax. The overwhelming evidence suggests that climate change is happening and is an urgent problem for humanity. 

The problem with the phrase ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is that, all too often, it’s used to protect beliefs that should be abandoned, or at the very least questioned. It can be used to mean ‘I can say or think whatever I like and if you argue with me then you are being disrespectful.’

If by saying ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ you mean that I can’t stop you thinking what you want then of course you are right. But if you say that being entitled to your opinion means that I have to take your view seriously as a candidate for the truth then I’m afraid I won’t – not unless you give me really good reasons why I should agree with you. Your view doesn’t become true or legitimate just because you say you are entitled to it.

When someone says they are entitled to their view they are really just failing to take seriously the issue under discussion. Failing to consider what is right and good and true. 

And I think something similar is going on with the response, All Lives Matter, to the Black Lives Matter movement. In using All Lives Matter people think they are being even handed; that they are taking seriously human equality. I have even read some Christians using the phrase All Lives Matter approvingly because they say they believe that all humans are created in the image of God.

But believing that all people are equal does not mean that we should adopt a position of benign neutrality to issues of social justice. It is about standing up for those who are more likely to experience injustice. Of course all lives matter. But if you use this as a response to Black Lives Matter you may well be accused of failing to acknowledge and take seriously the reality of suffering and injustice experienced by black people. If all lives really do matter, why are black and minority ethnic graduates more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white graduates? If all lives matter why are black people subject to harsher sentences in our criminal courts?

Clayesmore is a beautiful place in which to live and work. But because of this, it is all too easy to forget that throughout the world there are numerous groups and communities facing oppression, injustice and abuse. Saying Black Lives Matter is not saying that other lives don’t matter. Christians may very well be committed to equality because they believe that all humans are created in the image of God. But Jesus went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people – the alienated, the mistreated and those suffering injustice. Instead of saying All Lives Matter, Jesus said Children’s Lives Matter; Women’s Lives Matter; Samaritan lives Matter; Gentile Lives Matter. 

If you are as committed to equality as I believe you to be then it is no good saying ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ when you come up against a pressing ethical issue. This isn’t equality – this is ignoring the seriousness of the problem. And saying All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter means that you are rejecting the plight of the oppressed and the marginalised.

You believe all people are equal? Then acknowledge and participate in Black Lives Matter. Have the courage to oppose racism when you come across it. Pay attention and respond to individual injustices when you learn about them. Because as long as there are people who feel that their lives don’t matter your wish to ensure the dignity of every person will be unfulfilled.