On Lives and Mattering

I’ve seen a lot of posting, with good reason, over the past few weeks regarding a vast disagreement in our nation that can succinctly be stated: Whose lives matter? Obviously, the most prominent group is those involved with the BlackLivesMatter movement. On the other side of the coin are those who often respond that “all lives matter.” This has created a national dialogue that, I hope, has identified some problems in our American society that still need addressed and mended. This isn’t to say that there are a whole lot of easy solutions, but rather that identification of a problem is the first step to solving anything, and it’s generally good that we, as a whole, are at least attempting to define a perceived problem.

I think all sides could agree that there are problems. People may disagree on the nature and scope of the problem, as well as on where the blame lies, but there are definitely problems. Americans should not be dying needlessly, and in my previous entry, I attempted to write down some of my thoughts on gun violence, so I’m not going to rehash that here.

Instead, I wanted to point out that I believe this whole “whose lives matter” argument brings to light a simple problem with human communication. In an effort to deescalate and use a somewhat parallel example that I’d recently seen posted on my Facebook feed, let’s examine the hypothetical example where someone outwardly shows support for our troops. This is a common enough thing. Perhaps they are wearing a “Support Our Troops” ribbon. Now, let’s imagine that someone saw that and responded: “I believe we should support all people.”

Taking the words at face value, literally, the statement is actually a very positive one. After all, wouldn’t the world be “better” if we attempted to support “all people?” This, however, does not take into account the intent of the speaker. In psychology, there is a construct where a message, any message, is defined as having three parts. First, there is the message in and of itself. The literal words. Then, you have the perception on either side. The individual that sent the message has a certain perception that we could call, in this case, their intent. The individual receiving the message also has a perception that we could label a bias. This is true of every message, no matter how mundane. When intent, message, and bias mostly agree, we get a clearly communicated message. When they don’t, things become muddied, and interpretation is required for true understanding.

Returning to our example, we must examine both the intent of the speaker and the bias of the receiver. It has often been the case, I think, that folks who might say “support all people,” are in fact intending to minimize and marginalize the original topic. This is a problem that is being intentionally clouded in their message, as clearly communicating such an intent might be seen as crass or inappropriate. Similarly, there are receivers whose bias is so strong (perhaps for good reason, perhaps not), that they cannot perceive the original intent of the words and, again, the message becomes clouded with the potential for offense.

This is the crux of the argument I see happening currently within the black lives matter conversation. I truly believe that all lives do, in fact, matter, and that saying so isn’t, in and of itself, wrong. If your intent is, however, to trivialize the original topic instead of honestly pointing out the preciousness of all life… well then perhaps you should spend some time self-reflecting on your reason for saying something in the first place. Similarly, if you find yourself being constantly offended by the conversation going on around you, you may have a bias problem. Take some time to think about intent, and analyze how past hurts may be impacting your current reality. (It should be noted that bias can be both positive and negative. Though currently societal connotation may give it a more negative cast, that is not my intent here.)

Either way, both communication issues are exacerbated by the popularity of short form social media. Often we try to reduce complicated topics to a clever graphic or pithy phrase because that is what shares well, and will be passed around. This can be both boon and bane, as it has the potential to greatly proliferate a message while also potentially muddying it.

This is not a “get off my lawn” dart thrown at social media, though. I believe short form communication definitely has a place and purpose in the greater arena of human interaction. I do fear, however, that we risk losing the nuance of message that can make long-form communication more appropriate. Sometimes we all do well to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, read the longer article, or have the more drawn out conversation. Often we can learn and understand so much more if we only take the time.

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