All Lives Matter: It's a Trap!

By Stephen, 17 June, 2020

DRAFT: this article is likely to be changed a bit, comments welcome! Co-creators welcome! I'd love an artist to be involved, and am thinking about creating a video blog.

POPUP for all these blogs: Cognitive Politics explores communication strategies for more hopeful and compassionate politics. Across many issues, the explorations here are generally intended for allies: if you have experienced something yourself, speaking your personal truth is more powerful than the advice here. When an issue is not your personal truth, along with making space for those voices and making sure your anger doesn't drown out more direct anger, this site explores ideas for people willing to do emotional labor to change minds and slowly change elections.

Progressives: when you encounter people using racist memes to disrupt anti-racism education or actions, is it to their political advantage, or are you able to make trolling backfire — can you get more voters following along to be even more curious to learn about anti-racism efforts?

"All Lives Matter" is a strange phrase: the words sound sweet, the intention is not. What was the strategy of the people who introduced this phrase: how do they benefit?

We know the phrase is used to interrupt and distract social media conversations about racism. At a strategic level, what's happening — how do the people who first introduced the phrase benefit beyond squabbles on social media, what was their plan? The phrase is not just a distraction but a calculated distraction: understanding how trolling influences voting, how it morphs energy for change into an “us vs them” fight, is the first step to making abrasive trolling strategies backfire.

The Setup

Progressives tend to discuss the ways that "All Lives Matter" is used as an interruption. It implies a "but" that isn't spoken*... and often the words themselves don't even make sense as they are used. I think a lot of people might recognize this from non-political life as similar to passive-aggressive conversations:

If someone says "you should wash your dishes" and you reply "yeah everyone should wash their dishes" while you walk away, those words are not worthy of careful analysis of language choices — but we get distracted into those analyses all the time.

The Trap

This carefully crafted 3-word phrase, “All Lives Matter,” is more than an interruption. It's also a trap. Every time police brutality is caught on video, a few more people who should have been paying attention years ago finally start to care. People who’ve seen videos and are ready to take their first step to learning more, but who have very little understanding of history or the depth of the issues, walk in the door to the conversation, and hear the catch phrases of the movements. The words "all lives matter" sound true and nice before you take a second step towards learning recent history. The purpose of the phrase is get people taking their first step confused when they’re told “All Lives Matter” is a harmful phrase.

As a political strategy with the goal of effecting change, the right-wing trolls don't matter and solid progressives don't matter, their votes are set. It's people new to the conversation who have the power to sway an issue in one director or another— and as progressives, we lose them at the door when they hear “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” and choose the one their life experience to date says is true and good..

If you walk into a house with dirty dishes, "Everyone should do their dishes" sounds good. The words themselves aren't passive-aggressive.

Divided and Conquered

The end result of newcomers latching onto “All Lives Matter” is that anti-racists hear them parrot the phrase, and jump to labeling anyone who says it as racist. This instantly creates a wall between anti-racists and people new to the conversation who come with a good intent. That the newcomers are on the other team. Trolls bombard us with this pretty phrase until we hate them, exactly so that we’ll lash out at someone recently drawn to pay attention who thinks that of course all lives should matter.

Whether new listeners are 16 years old or spent decades ignoring police brutality and racism, they open the door to see the entryway that something needs to change about America’s relationship to Black and Brown lives. And they get attacked at the door, faster than anyone explains the attack. Told they are not welcome, that if they think “All Lives Matter” they are racist.

The trap is sprung: instead of a new person walking into the door with a new perspective and potentially a new desire to vote for change, the new person is immediately attacked because they don’t yet fully understand the entire history of what they have walked into.

That's why this is politics, and not just Twitter bs.

This isn't the only phrase with words whose dictionary definitions sound nice, which is nearly never used according to the actual meaning. These tactics could fail if progressives adjusted: Stop arguing about the dictionary definitions and just make sure that we welcome people who do believe in the dictionary definition of "all lives matter," and get them watching documentaries and reading books and learning more, feeling like new members of the anti-racist team instead of pariahs, and then more votes will shift.


Here are some of my posts trying to talk people out of the trap, and welcoming them to learn more and join the anti-racist team — trying to be conversational, instead of rejecting:
Do All Lives Matter? Aren't we all humans living on this Earth?
Aren't black lives matter activists racist if they disagree that "all lives matter"?
What are some positive ways of expressing that black lives matter separate from all lives matter?
Why is it considered racist to say "I don't believe in race"?


Six great examples that might reach people who are honestly confused. We can let go of talking to entrenched opponents: imagine reaching an 18 year old voting for the first time who wasn't paying attention, and now is listening in, perhaps quietly while you converse with a troll. This 18 year old is actually curious about what is offensive about the obvious three word phrase "all lives matter." When a phrase is used as a distraction to a real conversation, our goal is not really to convince people about phrases and definitely not to argue with trolls: our goal is to create an atmosphere where trolling is counter-productive, where a troll who tries to get someone extremely new to anti-racism distracted and angry and instead that 18 year old gets more curious, feeling like they are on the same journey to learn more that you are on.

Once you're aware that this is a trap, how do you get potential but not really yet anti-racists out of the trap? A step-by-step approach to keeping temperatures down while moving forward on social media:…