'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.'
(Henry David Thoreau)
When I first heard the slogan 'Black Lives Matter', my immediate reaction was, 'of course they do, don't all lives matter?' Then I thought some more about it.
As a teen in the '60s, I watched news reports of the Vietnam War and had a visceral reaction to the detailed reporting of deaths of small numbers of Western soldiers versus casual mention of mass casualties and collateral damage to South East Asian civilians. In Laos a few years ago, I visited the Lao National Museum, housing exhibits on the harm done, both by heavy bombing during the war and by unexploded ordinances to this day. It reinforced my original dismay over the unbalanced reporting of world news. Some lives mattered more than others then, and still do now.
We all know that history, even as it happens, is steadily rewritten by the powerful, as Eric Foner reminds us in Who Owns History? : Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. In a kind of reverse Heisenberg principle of history, he addresses the impact of the observation and interpretation of past events on society. How we see the past affects all of us. Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin echoes that, saying 'We were very impoverished because our history was denied to us. So you can imagine all the work that we have to do still. That every community, every child that's growing, should know its history and, as much as possible, its language.'
When a group of people has a long history of being marginalized, and targeted with violence (as exemplified by young black males in many Western countries, the missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, and the current rise of Islamophobia in Europe and North America), society needs to bend over backwards to avoid even the perception of that happening, again and again.
Years ago, I read an intriguing memoir of an upper class Englishwoman in colonial India, whose title I can't recall. What did stick in my mind was her declaration that she would always take her daughter-in-laws' side rather than her sons', no matter the topic. She did this because of the strong cultural assumption that a mother-in-law will always favor her son. The same kind of assumption applies to which lives matter.
We all know (even if we don't all acknowledge) that the value we place on lives has long been out of balance ...
Black Lives Matter Indigenous Lives Matter Muslim Lives Matter Refugee Lives Matter LGBTQ+ Lives Matter
A steady stream of media reports over the last year, of black and indigenous youths shot (in circumstances in which it's unlikely that a paler person would have died) leave my heart sore, and the victims' friends and families devastated. Killers continue to prey on vulnerable young women and the LGBTQ+ community - where does this come from?
Acclaimed author Toni Morrison said 'There is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race. Scientifically, anthropologically, racism is a construct - a social construct. And it has benefits. Money can be made off of it, and people who don't like themselves can feel better because of it. It can describe certain kinds of behavior that are wrong or misleading. So it has a social function, racism.'
Nelson Mandela questioned 'Why is it that in this courtroom I face a white magistrate, am confronted by a white prosecutor and escorted into the dock by a white orderly? Can anyone seriously suggest that in this type of atmosphere the scales of justice are evenly balanced?' Political correspondent Jamelle Bouie says 'Our courts and juries aren't impartial arbiters - they exist inside society, not outside of it - and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.'
In Reason for Hope, Jane Goodall talks of cultural speciation among humans (as well as chimpanzees), leading to different treatment of in-group and out-group members. She considers cultural speciation 'crippling to human moral and spiritual growth.'. Yet, she remains optimistic that homo sapiens is in the process of a long moral evolution.
We all need to work harder to move faster along that path. Society must balance its scales. 'All lives do matter.' Nevertheless, the lives of those whose lives have not mattered in the past, must be shown to matter more for some time to come, if we want to reclaim our shared humanity and move away from the dark history that shames us all.
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