“Mattering” can mean two things. Some things matter ultimately: love, life, security, God — the big stuff. Ultimate mattering is the realm of religion and philosophy. It rarely intrudes into our daily political discourse.
The other kind of mattering is a scale that we use to ration our attention at a given time. When things matter, we pay attention to them. We use our time, our intellectual energy, and our emotional reserves to deal with them and, if they are problems, to find solutions.
When somebody is being chased by a bear, the fact of the bear does a whole lot of mattering — and that mattering is not dependant on the innate value of bears as opposed to other things. It is the immediacy of the bear that makes it matter, not the existential nature of the threat. It is absolutely true that carbohydrates and cholesterol kill far more people in a given year than bears do. However, when there are bears, nobody shouts, “there is an angry bear running towards you and you really need to run, and, by the way, maybe go easy on the carbs.”
That said, you really should go easy on the carbs. And the cholesterol. Once you get away from the bear, these things are going to matter a lot. All health threats matter, and all lives matter. And in the ultimate sense, these things have equal importance. But that does not mean that they deserve an equal share of our attention at every time. The health threat that matters the most is the one that is currently threatening my life. And the social threats that matter the most are the ones that post the greatest current risk to our society.
Here are a few things that I would propose as ground rules for mattering when the term is used in a social or political — as opposed to a theological — sense. Your rules may differ, but this is an attempt to get us started by creating a shared definition of what it means to matter. I will begin with what mattering is not:
- Mattering is not an innate characteristic. It does not describe a fixed quality of something: a red car, a big house, a mattering person. Different things matter to all of us at different times, and we are adapted to give the highest priority in mattering to the things most immediate to our survival. When I am being chased by a bear, the mattering is quite specific. “All bears matter” in a very theoretical sense, and lots of other things matter too. But there is one particular bear that is doing all of the mattering that my brain is capable of absorbing until I am safely away.
- Mattering is not a zero-sum game. There is not a fixed quantity of mattering in the universe, and when some things matter more, it does not mean that other things matter less. When I say that something matters, I mean that it is something that needs attention right now because it is a threat or opportunity that is especially pressing right now. This does not mean that other things are deprived of their matteringness or that, when they become pressing issues, they will deserve attention any less.
- Mattering is not a team sport. Individuals need to decide where to place their attention. Groups do too. And entire societies have collective mechanisms for sorting out which problems need to most attention at a given time. We do this through the way that we focus our individual attention on collective problems. In a democratic society, many different groups compete for attention. When some people are successful in bringing attention to their issue, it is not because their club won and other teams lost. It is because they played the game the way it is supposed to be played and directed the collective attention to a specific set of issues.
- Mattering is not an endpoint. Determining that something matters does not actually solve any problems. It simply acknowledges that problems exist and creates an environment in which solutions can be discussed. Before our national attention can be engaged, we have to determine that a particular issue or set of issues is important enough to warrant that attention.
But enough about what mattering is not. Negative definitions only get us so far. Here are a few things that, in my opinion, need to part of any definition of “mattering” that matters.
- Mattering is a statement of value. When I say that something matters, I am saying that it holds value for me. And valuing something means being willing to give up other things for it. If I say that Black Lives Matter, that does not mean that I think that Black lives matter more than other lives. But it does mean that I believe that one group of people in our society has been disproportionately affected by structural inequalities and that I am willing to give up something in order to rectify that situation — in order to create society that is more just, even if it means that I don’t get as much stuff.
- Mattering is a verb. “Black Lives Matter” is a full sentence consisting of an adjective, a noun, and a verb. The verb, “matter” is not the characteristic of the lives; it is the action — the thing that has to happen to make it a full sentence. Verbs are the most tenuous part of any sentence. With the smallest of inflections, the action can be thrust in the past, or delayed to the future, or made conditional, or placed in a subjunctive mode indicating contrariness to fact. Things matter because we make them matter — because we pay attention to and value them. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental point of the movement.
- Mattering is a commitment to understand something better. Mattering is, like learning, chiefly a function of attention. When something matters to us, we pay attention to it. And when we pay attention to something, we learn more about it. To argue that Black Lives Matter means to accept the responsibility to learn more about Black lives — to encounter history, poetry, science, sociology, and culture. And to know and care for actual people. Loving, I believe, is absolutely essential to mattering. And anything we love, by definition, matters.
- Mattering is a necessary precursor to action. Mattering is a necessary, if not a sufficient element of meaningful action. Whatever we do, and however we solve a problem, it has to begin with acknowledging the importance of the problem to be solved. We have to give it our attention, perhaps the most precious and limited of our resources. We have to care.
Through the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a large segment of our society is making the argument that the problems associated with systemic racism, structural inequality, and police violence in minority communities deserve a greater place in our collective attention then they have recently had. The evidence, I believe, supports their case. In the context of the discussion, the automatic rejoinder #AllLivesMatter cannot be read as a statement of general existential worth. Rather, it is a very specific argument that the problems facing African-Americans are no more serious, and no more worthy of our national attention, than the problems facing any other group of people. Such a position, I believe, calls for another primer on the art and science of privilege.