Blank Lives Matter! D’you Got a Problem with That?

Are you willing to test yourself?  Before you read any further, perform the following thought experiment:  Relax.  Take a deep breath.  Now gently and slowly, in your mind, substitute a series of ethnic groups for the “blank” in “Blank Lives Matter.”  For example, “Irish Lives Matter, Italian Lives Matter, Puerto Rican Lives Matter, Mexican Lives Matter, African-American Lives Matter,” etc.

Feel your emotional response to your words representing each ethnic group as you do this.  If you are like me, you experience at least a slight variation with each substitution.  Don’t judge or explain – just observe.

Now try religions and denominations, “Christian Lives Matter, Catholic Lives Matter, Jewish Lives Matter, Hindu Lives Matter, Muslim Lives Matter,” etc.”  Try sexual orientation, “Gay Lives Matter, Straight Lives Matter, Lesbian Lives Matter,” etc.  Try colors and shades, “White Lives Matter, Red Lives Matter, Yellow Lives Matter, Light Lives Matter, Dark Lives Matter,” etc.  You can try it with any categorical series that might relate to having a life.

Sitting on my exercise mat on earlier this month, in my little nest of newsprint, I read about Police and EMT personnel protesting a “Black Lives Matter” banner on the Somerville, MA City Hall.  Somerville is described by the New York Times as “a white working class suburb of Boston.”  Somerville is actually a rapidly gentrifying urban part of greater Boston, governed by a highly regarded mayor, Joseph Curtatone, the son of Italian immigrants.  He had refused to have the banner removed.  The Boston Globe had a more nuanced account more sympathetic to the protesting Police.

I ran the “Blank Lives Matter” thought experiment to test my own feelings about a “Black Lives Matter” banner on a public building.  I was prompted, in part, by seeing a Democratic convention interview on CSPAN in which a delegate said, “If you have a problem with “Black Lives Matter,” that’s your problem not mine.”

Performing the experiment in a non-filtering mood, as I stretched and exercised, I was surprised to find that my feelings varied with almost every substitution, mildly in most cases but noticeably.  It is a testable proposition, but I am sure such emotional variation is detectable physiologically, in psychological tests, and by behavioral observation.  Additionally my sample of one is very easy to enlarge.

I had emotions associated with each word I tested.  What surprised me is that I had negative emotions associated with many common negative cultural stereotypes.  I felt a conflict between the negative emotion and the positive statement that “Blank Lives Matter.”  In my particular ethnic culture, negative stereotypes applying to every ethnic group and religious practice (including our own), are readily available, so I have many stereotypes to draw on.  I doubt that my ethnic culture is unique concerning stereotypes, positive or negative.

Both logically and intuitively, I believe that all people are born equal and endowed with inalienable, equal rights.  However, at the same time I find that I value the lives of some people more than others.  At a personal level this is natural and not a problem.  It is natural to consider one’s own family most dear.  One’s close friends and neighbors are more important than distant relationships.  What is more problematic, although also perfectly natural, is that I evaluate whole classes of people stereotypically according to oversimplified, standardized and in some cases negative ideas.

All perception, across all senses, employs stereotypes.  Reality provides too much information for our brains to process quickly without simplification.  However, the use of stereotypes makes us susceptible to misleading illusions.  Like a magician creating optical illusions, others can use our stereotypes to trick us into false perceptions.  We can also trick ourselves by failing to notice patterns that we don’t expect.

I tried another thought experiment, as I showered that morning.  I recalled a “Blank Lives Matter” that I had felt conflicted about and repeated it in my mind just as I repeat positive statements or affirmations to keep myself motivated in sports training and competition.  I found that the repetition melted away negative emotions and encouraged a good feeling that “Blank Lives Really Do Matter.”

These two thought experiments demonstrated that negative reactions to the positive statement that any given “Fill-in the-Blank Lives Matter” and especially with “Black Lives Matter” are well worth examining, both personally and in public discourse.  I would need strong evidence to convince me that my stereotypical negative reactions are unusual.

Common negative stereotypes reduce the strength of our positive valuation of fill-in-the-blank peoples’ lives.  Values influence action.  However, my experiments also demonstrate that we can examine and alter our stereotypes.  The closer our stereotypes come to our belief that all people are born equal and endowed with inalienable, equal rights, the better we will feel and better we will become.  

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