There is a fundamental linguistic challenge at the heart of this one. In hypnosis, a concept called “deletion” is a very useful device. It references an implication, one the unconscious mind is too clever to miss—though is not overtly stated. If I tell you, “Today, I’m doing okay,” on the surface, I’m simply telling you how I’m doing today. But look at the implication: I am only doing okay today. Meaning that “doing okay” is a new thing for me, specifically as of today. Bear with me, this is going to illuminate something in a moment. Nitpickers of the world may be tempted to tune out, but the unconscious mind is a very interesting thing…it notices and uses such phenomena. All the time.
The deletion, in hypnosis terminology, is that yesterday, and possibly every other day before that, I was anything but “okay”. It’s possible to use this kind of language to imply very clearly a good many things without explicitly saying them. When someone makes the statement, “police lives matter”, or as it is more commonly stated, “blue lives matter”, he isn’t just stating the overt meaning that the lives of police officers are important, that they matter. The deletion is that other lives, besides those of police officers, do not matter, or perhaps matter, but less than those of police officers.
Is this beginning to make sense? The unconscious mind picks up on these subtle implications, affecting us and how we feel about a statement, even if consciously we take the statement exactly at face value. Keep in mind that the person making the statement might be savvy and is using this to its full effect to influence us. But it’s also possible that the speaker is trying to make an entirely different point, and this deletion is unintentional. The challenge for us as speakers is understanding that whether we intended to affect our audience thusly or not is irrelevant. In Neuro-linguistic Programming, there is a truism which states: “The meaning of a communication is the message received.” Which is to say, what you meant is often irrelevant. What really matters is how it was taken. Yes, that gives us a lot of responsibility as speakers or writers. But it also means that when our audience takes something in a way we had not intended, it is on us to clarify.
So what was the deletion here? “Black Lives Matter.” Suggesting that other lives do not. Or that black lives matter more than other lives. This might not offend you if you are black, but to anyone who does not identify as black, it hardly facilitates friendship and understanding.
Based on all I’ve learned about the BLM movement, I feel I can safely say that this deletion was not intended by anyone in that mainstream movement. Sure, fringe elements always appear in such situations, and they tend to spout off inflammatory, provocative statements that not only disagree with the core of the moment they claim to represent, but even create problems for that movement. It’s important not to confuse a lunatic fringe with the movement itself. Otherwise you are forced to treat peace-loving Muslims the same as you do insane jihadists–or endtimes fanatic Christian extremists the same as mainstream Christians. They are not the same thing, and historically, never have been.
Particularly considering all the frustration and turmoil the non-black response has caused, I can’t imagine this ever having been intentional, at least from the mainstream, serious-minded BLM adherent. It’s just not a likely strategy to be successful in furthering the black concern. That concern, as stated by the BLM movement itself, has nothing to do with comparing the value of members of different races. But instead a response to what portions of the black community feel is an implication that black lives do not matter. Where did this come from? A perception that when a white police officer fatally shoots or injures a black person, there are few, if any, consequences to that officer. I get that there are multiple perspectives involved. A kid playing with a water pistol being shot by a cop is not the same thing as someone taking a shot at a police officer and that cop returning fire. Sure, there are examples of both of these scenarios. The bigger concern for BLM revolves around how quickly any inquiry into whether the officer was justified is closed in that cop’s favor. From some people’s perspective, when a black person is shot and killed by the police, and there is no investigation beyond a day or two’s inquiry, before the cop is cleared of responsibility, it might seem that the message is that the black person’s life was inconsequential, didn’t matter. BLM sprung out of this perception and asserts that every death is a tragedy, and that yes, black lives do matter.
Now consider that many non-black people live in much more homogeneous areas. For instance, several years ago, I lived along the border in South Texas. While there are black people, Oriental people, and a few Indian and Pakistani people, the vast majority of people you will meet there are Hispanic. There are a few Caucasians, but we are the minority in that part of the country. The point is that down there, it’s unlikely that you will happen upon a black person very often. So if you live there, your representation of black America is what you see on the evening news or read about on the web.
Now combine living in such an area with the deletion inherent in the statement, not necessarily the movement, “black lives matter”. Are you beginning to see how people in such a situation may feel at least slightly threatened by that statement? Can you imagine a Caucasian or Hispanic person hearing that deletion and saying to himself, “What? You mean my life doesn’t matter? Or at least not as much a the life of a black person?” In a less homogeneous location, where someone can just ask a black friend if that was the meaning, this sort of misunderstanding might not happen so easily. But in South Texas or, for example, Vermont, most people living there simply aren’t likely to know a black person locally. They are left to draw their own conclusions, and when the statement confronting them features a potentially threatening deletion, we are unsurprisingly left with hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Add to this the fact that some white people (present company excluded) feel threatened by what they perceive to be racism directed at them, in the form of unfair advantages granted to minorities, and you have an anti-BLM sentiment that is largely based on a misunderstanding.
Wait. Racism directed toward white people? Yes, some white people, largely not understanding things like Affirmative Action and scholarships awarded specifically to students of a particular ethnic group, feel that such programs and opportunities are discriminating against them. While technically, they do exactly that–using race as a differentiation that can disqualify an applicant, the question is why does it differentiate, not so much that it does in the first place. For instance, a diverse workforce promotes opportunity for all, so Affirmative Action has a basis in fairness, even though on the surface it may seem discriminatory, while promoting diversity in the workplace. Likewise, scholarships for underprivileged students do discriminate against the affluent, and those for black, Hispanic, or other ethnic groups do discriminate against Caucasians. However the theory underlying these is that the affluent, as well as Caucasians (and of course, students who are both affluent and Caucasian) do not need assistance paying for college. The why, its proponents argue, justify any perceived discrimination.
Yet whether or not you agree that the “why”, the reasons underlying such differentiation, is justified, you no doubt can imagine how a deletion like “black lives matter” (the phrase, not the movement) could seem threatening to non-blacks.
This is unfortunately at times exacerbated by isolated cases in which some black people feel protective of the movement. An associate of mine, feeling very threatened by BLM, shared a Youtube video that supported his fear. In the video, a white person took a “Black Lives Matter” sign into a parking lot where he encountered white people. He had an associate film him as he asked whites for their opinions, and though none expressed interest in what he had to say, no one threatened him either. For contrast, he took an “All Lives Matter” sign into a neighborhood and as he was similarly filmed, asked blacks for their opinions. He was threatened and at one point attacked for the sign, which his attacker said, showed disrespect to the BLM movement. My associate used this video to support his believe that BLM is a racist movement, promoted by unapologetic racists. The actions of a few, when salient, often are incorrectly attributed to the entire group, and this is no different. Sure, some blacks on that video were violent and angry. Sure, some members of the BLM movement may promote violence or anti-white sentiment, though they do not represent the movement itself or the majority of that movement’s members.
In exactly the same way, the whites who are distrusting, fearful, and angry toward BLM do not represent the rest of us. Understanding that BLM is not about minimizing the importance of non-black lives, many of us appreciate that BLM is simply trying to assert that the killing of a human being is never unimportant. Always being a serious matter, the race of that victim does not change a thing. I get it. Most of us do. Though as we try to explain this to the vocal white minority who don’t yet understand, it helps to know why they are concerned in the first place.
Outside of the deletion suggesting that any non-black lives don’t matter, many people have applied this deletion to specifically a black versus blue question. Meaning that we’ve now seen a similar objection to “Blue Lives Matter”, itself a response to violence against police officers.
The lesson for us as communicators is to note how a deletion can drive a wedge into what is already a divisive issue, and make it very difficult for opposing sides to come back together and heal. By identifying, for instance, that the deletion exists, those establishing a movement could opt for a less ambiguous name, which invites controversy. Though on the other side of the discussion, once we spot the deletion, it is also on us to be bigger than the hypnotic language, big enough to bridge the deletion, keep the flow of communication going, and work together to solve what we all agree are problems facing our multi-colored, multiracial society.