How to Engage With People Who Are Stubbornly Stuck on “All Lives Matter”

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The “Black Lives Matter” vs. “All Lives Matter” rhetorical fight has been going on for years, and doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere. How do we, in the name of racial justice, move people from “All” to “Black,” and convince them to change their stance?

Is there a winning move here? Is this more of a sweep the leg situation, or does it call for a crane kick? How do we end this fight once and for all?

I got a message today from a reader named Jamie asking just this:

Any advice on how to engage with people who are so stubbornly stuck on “all lives matter” or who are busy condemning protestors instead of trying to understand what the protest is really about? I struggle b/c I can’t think fast on my feet and tend to sound like an idiot when directly challenged.

For my part, I’ve spent a lot of time in the ring. I’ve fought this battle from a stage with crowds, in workshops with thousands of participants, and more times than I would ever want to recount on The [godforsaken, why are we still here doing this?] Internet. I’ve waxed on (and on, and on), and I’ve waxed off.

But in those seven years I haven’t written about any of it here, because I know that people aren’t going to like the answer.

It’s like what I learned with Why We Won’t Defund the Police study, but worse. Harder. Pricklier. And I decided I’d rather not lose friends over this.

But hey – I can’t leave Jamie hanging, can I? This is the first time I’ve gotten this question via my reply form as a direct Q, so who would I be to not offer an A?

For this fight, you’re going to need less Karate Kid and more Mr. Miagi. Less Sun Tzu, more Lao Tzu.

“The best fighter is never angry.”

— Lao Tzu

1. Start by vehemently, unequivocally agreeing with them. (I know. Hear me out.)

“Yes!", you might say in response to your friend saying, “All lives matter.”

And you might say it so surely, so confidently, it shakes their confidence in their own stance, and not just because they were expecting you to disagree.

At this point, most of us in this fight know what side we’re on. We walk into the ring wearing the uniforms of our respective gyms. We’ve seen the other things we’ve shared on social media, the other stances we hold, the politicians we support. All of this must fit neatly together, nice and tidy. One of the first things you learn in Karate classes, after all, is how to fold your Gi.

“All lives do matter,” you can continue, fully destabilizing them.

They’re off-kilter now, wobbling. Vulnerable to the final blow. So, what’s our coup de grâce?

Is it time to strike with a clever verbal retort? A figurative bait-and-switch? A rhetorical dismantling?

Maybe that one about the burning houses!, you might be thinking. That one’s good. It really convinced me to more deeply believe the thing I already believed.

Or that one about the cancer ward and all diseases mattering. It’s less popular, so it’ll be more of a surprise attack.

Or you could deploy any of the hundred other analogies people have come up with in the past seven years, each one more clever and dead-on than the one before it. I’m sure there’s a listicle somewhere ranking them, because The Internet.

But if you want to win this fight, none of these moves will help.

It turns out our opponent also has access to The Internet. They’ve learned our secret moves, because we’ve been talking about them in the open. They were in the room the whole time, watching as we patted ourselves on the back for how devastating that attack was on the practice dummy. But they aren’t the dummies. They might not even be the oblivious idiots we made them out to be. And sometimes – trust me on this one, I know it’s hard to believe – they’re just as clever.

There’s only one combo move that will work. Only one rhetorical strike you can follow “Yes, all lives do matter,” with that’s not going to be met with a patterned counter-attack, a choreographed back and forth until you’re both tired or furious or someone declares themselves the winner or one of you finishes pooping and therefore is no longer on your phone.

What’s the next move? Study this closely, Grasshopper. Many have tried and many have failed.

“Act without expectation.”

— Lao Tzu

2. Then ask them why they believe what they believe.

If they were disagreeing with someone else’s “Black Lives Matter,” and that’s what got you into the ring, ask them why. “Why don’t you think Black lives matter? Or why do you believe all lives matter?”

If this fight started as a preemptive strike, with you hearing them say “All Lives Matter” but nobody has mentioned “Black Lives Matter” yet, just ask them, “Why do you believe that?” or “Why is that important to you to say?”

Then you listen.

Let me say that again, and I’ll do it with the clap emojis to really hammer it home, because this part is really important: Then 👏 You 👏 Listen.

Okay, you might be thinking. I see where this is going… We’re luring them into a trap. The more they talk, the more likely it is they make a mistake, or say something I can latch onto. They might even say something that’s easy for me to connect to that burning house thing, then I really get ‘em. This is brilliant. When do we pounce?

Whoa there – easy, tiger! No.

I’m not suggesting you engage in predatory listening.

(Do 👏 not 👏 predatorily 👏 listen. 🚫🐯👂)

I said we’re not doing Sun Tzu here. This isn’t the Art of War. I’m not setting you up to fully eradicate the enemy army, demoralizing them in the process. We’re not trying to emulate the “well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

I’m also not setting you up to put on a performance of Hypocrisy Theatre. There are no showings tonight. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, the theatre is closed.

Just listen. Actively listen. Curiously listen. Empathetically listen. Hear what they’re saying. Ask them for clarifications when you’re unsure. Repeat their points back to them and check if you’re understanding correctly.

Hear them out. But most importantly make them feel heard.

So when do we strike…?, I can feel you getting impatient. You think I’ve got you painting the fence over here while secretly honing your fighting form, and you’re ready to kick some fence ass.

Alas, I’m sorry to disappoint, but we’re just painting the fence.

If it makes you feel better, you can be a really kick-ass listener (and that’ll help! The better you are at listening, the better this whole thing goes).

But the listening is just listening. That’s it. That’s what we’re doing here.

“By letting go it all gets done.”

— Lao Tzu

3. And THEN you strike! (JK. We’re done. That’s it.)

There’s no third move here. I told you this was Lao Tzu, not Sun Tzu. I was not trying to trick you.

Number 2 is where it ends, with you listening. Anything you add, any retort, or counterpoint, or complicating narrative, or challenge, or “devil’s advocate” – anything! – is more likely to undo the good the listening did than it is to do any good itself.

I’m speaking from [a mountain of painful] personal experience here, but there’s also a whole cadre of researchers who have spent energy and time and effort to tell you this: Facts don’t change people’s minds.

“But asking questions – and showing a genuine desire to hear and acknowledge the answers – sets a different tone that boosts the odds of a productive resolution, or at least a friendlier stalemate that inspires further thought and discussion.”

You ask, they answer, you listen. End of list.

The important part of that quote, you might be noticing, is this implies a relationship. The “further” part means this person needs to be in your life after this moment.

A lot of these fights happen among strangers, or with “friends” on Facebook that aren’t really our friends, and we’re drawn to hovering over that “Unfollow” option when someone disagrees with us, knowing we can disappear them forever, drunk with power.

That doesn’t get us closer to the goal of racial justice – that is our goal, right? That’s why we’re doing all of this? – it just reinforces the walls of our silos, increasing the volume in our echo chamber.

We can’t be canceling people in our lives who aren’t with us on this. If we care about effecting change on this front, the hard and necessary work is going to be listening. Listening to a lot of things we have a hard time hearing. Listening to things we disagree with. Listening and not cutting them off, or out of our lives.

How do we get closer to racial justice? How do we create a society where Black lives do matter?

“The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.”

— Lao Tzu

Moving beyond the fight.

I was at a protest and my group was chanting, “Black Lives Matter.” On the sidewalk, there was, as has become the norm, a group of counter-protestors chanting, “All Lives Matter.”

In that moment, we saw them as disagreeing with us. And they saw us as disagreeing with them. This is happening daily now. Everywhere.

But were we really disagreeing with them?

As has been said a million times by now, “For all lives to matter, Black lives have to matter.” That’s true. The only issue is that it’s not actually disagreeing with “all lives matter.” It’s making that point.

Black lives matter. Brown lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. Trans lives matter. Poor lives matter. All lives matter. Yes. That’s our point.

That’s why we’re marching. We’re marching because we believe Black lives matter, because we believe all lives matter (not just the select few society is currently structured to care about). That’s the goal what we’re fighting for, so why are we constantly fighting against the phrase?

And are they really disagreeing with us?

If someone truly believes all lives matter, that “all” must include Black lives, right? It has to. It’s a pretty weak all if it doesn’t.

And my gut reaction could have been a pitch-perfect Regina George, “So you agree? You think Black lives matter?” But it wasn’t. It never is.

The reaction is anger, despair, guilt, frustration, pain, and hopelessness. “How do they not get this?"

It’s something that’s been happening for years now. Jamie’s question above, from this morning, is just the most recent time it’s come up for me, in a long lineage of thousands of times this has occupied my headspace. And it always takes me to the same place.

Why are we stuck in this fight?

It’s like a racial injustice parody of Groundhog Day (btw, that idea is free and yours to run with, Jordan Peele).

And, more urgently, How do we move past this and take meaningful steps toward racial justice?

To that I’ll say four things:

  1. Everything I said above I believe to be true. Before you come back at me in the replies, please be ready to point out the lie.
  2. The reason I’m saying it is guided by a social justice compass pointing toward equity.
  3. I’m entirely certain that publishing this article, despite #1 and #2, is going to be a miserable experience. I’ve been told by two social justice people that it’s probably not worth the pain to release this, despite them also agreeing with what I wrote, and that this is a problem we need to confront.
  4. And while I think it’s necessary for us to be able to pushback against bad arguments in social justice to achieve our goals, in no corner of my imagination do I think that’s sufficient. Nor do I think everything I shined light on above is THE problem.

Here’s what I think is THE problem here:

We all agree that Black lives matter (yes, even many of the “All Lives Matter” crowd – maybe even most!), but we don’t agree what to do to make that belief a reality.

And instead of moving from the shared belief to shared action (and starting to reckon with the prickly truth that we’re all likely on very different sides when it comes to the policies and changes we support), it’s comfier to just keep going round and round the ring shouting what we believe.

If my defunding the police poll taught me anything, it’s that assuming having the same social-justice-oriented beliefs will necessarily lead us to supporting the same actions is fool’s errand.

It’s comfier, easier, and less risky for us to grapple with the “All Lives Matter” people than it is to reckon with our own disagreements. With the massive chasms of disagreement within “our” side. With the lack of unified vision we share.

It doesn’t matter if we “change their mind.” It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t move us closer to racial justice. We can get a lot of Internet Points for dunking on “them.”

But that’s not the goal. And we’re not here for comfy, right? We’re here for justice. We came together today to create a more equitable tomorrow.

Whether someone shouts “All Lives Matter!” or “Black Lives Matter!", my response is going to start being, “True! I totally agree. And what specific steps do you support for us to take toward creating a society where that truth is a reality?"

The amount of change and vision and global revolution it’s going to take to make Black lives matter, ironically, is a helluva lot less than it’s going to take to make all lives matter.

In that way, “all lives matter” is the truly radical position. We have a long way to go before that’s true.

One bit of encouraging news: both of those destinations are, by necessity, different stops along the same road.

But we can’t start heading there until we know which direction we’re heading.

Lao Tzu has one last bit of wisdom to offer us here, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Step one for me is going to be publishing this article. Step two is going to be hiding from the internet for a few days.

For steps three through infinity, I’m all ears. Let’s go.


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About the Author

Sam Killermann Self Portrait

Hi! I'm Sam Killermann. I'm the author of A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate's Handbook, and I was featured in Katie Couric's NatGeo documentary "Gender Revolution". I created It's Pronounced Metrosexual in 2011. I write everything here and doodle the doodles myself. Bonus: everything I create is uncopyrighted and freely accessible — I even coded (& open-sourced) this site itself, my gift to you. Read More →

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