The Pragmatics of Saying “All Lives Matter”: A Critique.
By “lives,” I mean the total collection of event-sequences running all the way from the birth of consciousness in any individual human organism to its organic and/or psychological destruction or death, as it applies to human persons, i.e., self-conscious, rational, spontaneously self-legislating, and also caring, desiring, feeling, imagining, perceiving, and remembering (or in general: sensible) human animals, all of whom inherently possess irreducible moral dignity.
So it is not false that black lives matter. It is also not false that all lives matter. Saying that black lives matter is not saying that only black lives matter. And if all lives matter, then black lives, which are a proper subset of all lives, also matter. So why do some people respond to the claim that “black lives matter” by saying that “all lives matter,” and why do people told that “all lives matter” after they have said that “black lives matter” take the claim that “all lives matter” to be a negation of or a challenge to the claim that “black lives matter”? The central issue is one that lies in the linguistic distinction between what’s known as “semantic content” and “pragmatic content.” In brief, the “all lives matter” crowd is (intentionally or unintentionally violating criteria of pragmatic appropriateness and then defending that violation by appealing to unviolated criteria of semantic appropriateness. Read on!
Speech, whether in the form of utterances or inscriptions, whether presented via individual words, entire sentences, or full paragraphs, has meaning to it. That meaning conveys beliefs, expresses commands, conveys desires and hopes and fears, indicates questions, and so-on. But there are two (at least two—but I’m concerned here only with these two) different, although intimately related, types of meaning: semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning. Philosophers of language and linguists refer to these types of meaning by talking about the “content” of a word, sentence, paragraph, and so talk about the “semantic content” and the “pragmatic content” of words, sentences, and paragraphs. Semantic content is the literal dictionary meaning of words, sentences, and paragraphs. “You made me a bowl of soup for dinner” has a specific literal meaning: that the person being addressed cooked soup and gave it to the speaker at dinnertime. But there is more to the meaning of that sentence than just its semantic content. What is the purpose of the sentence—who said it, to whom is it said, what are the background contextual conditions? If the speaker was expecting a gourmet meal, the sentence could be used to express disappointment and hostility. If the speaker loves soup, but hasn’t been able to have soup for a while, the sentence could be used to express joy and appreciation. The content expressed by the sentence because of the purpose of the sentence—who said it, who it’s said to, what the background conditions are—is the pragmatic content.
Words, sentences, paragraphs have appropriateness criteria that depend on their content. The semantic appropriateness criteria are justification, truth, and/or knowledge (there’s debate about the specifics here, so I’m just giving all three of the typically cited criteria). If a speaker is justified in believing something, if something is true, and/or if the speaker knows something, then it is semantically appropriate to utter or inscribe what that speaker is justified in believing, what is true, and/or what the speaker knows. It is true that June is the month following May, I am justified in believing that June is the month following May, I know that June is the month following May. Thus, it is semantically appropriate for me to utter or inscribe: “June is the month following May.”
The pragmatic appropriateness criteria are somewhat more complicated and more up for debate than are the semantic appropriateness criteria. The most famous description of pragmatic appropriateness criteria comes from British philosopher H.P. Grice (1913–1988) in the form of what has come to be known as “Grice’s Maxims” (social scientists might know these maxims collectively by the name “the cooperative principle”). Says Grice: “Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” Enumerated, Grice thus gives us four pragmatic appropriateness criteria (with my very brief explanations):
- Quantity: Say as much as will be valuable and no more.
- Quality: Don’t intentionally mislead.
- Relation (or Relevance): Say what is relevant to the conversation and context.
- Manner: Be succinct and orderly while avoiding ambiguity and obscurity.
Returning to my example sentence, “June is the month following May,” uttering or inscribing this sentence is always semantically appropriate, as we have seen, but that does not mean that uttering or inscribing this sentence is always pragmatically appropriate. For example, If you ask the order of the months and I say “June is the month following May,” I have violated the Maxim of Quantity. If you ask whether I want to go on vacation in May or June and I say “June is the month following May,” I have violated the Maxim of Relation. And so-on.
Now back to the issue at hand: the “black lives batter” vs. “all lives matter” conflict. It is true that black lives matter; it is true that all lives matter. So no one is either saying something false, saying something unjustified, or saying something that they don’t know. But as we’ve seen, there’s much more to appropriateness of speech than mere semantic criteria.
When we ask ourselves “Why are people saying that black lives matter?,” we can see that it is being said to draw attention to the undervaluing of black people and their lives, to the disparate treatment at the hands of police and society more generally of black people and their lives, to under-reported and often buried instances of individual racism and violence, to the existence of structural racism and violence, etc. And people are saying that black lives matter at this moment, in this country, in response to specific events, to specific rhetoric, to specific facts.
When we ask ourselves “Why are people responding to the claim that black lives matter by saying that all lives matter?,” we can see that the claim that all lives matter is being said as a challenge to the claim that black lives matter, as a way of pushing back against and drowning out the voices of those saying that black lives matter, as a way of (intentionally or unintentionally) muddying the conceptual waters and forcing listeners to choose whether it is all lives that matter or merely black lives (which, of course, is not what “black lives matter” means).
Thus, as a response to the claim that “black lives matter,” the claim that “all lives matter” violates pragmatic appropriateness criteria: it confuses listeners about the issue (Maxim of Quality); it is, at best, irrelevant to the topic-at-hand (Maxim of Relation): and it introduces ambiguity and obscurity into the discussion (Maxim of Manner). It is not false that all lives matter, but so what? Our goal in speaking and writing is not merely to say all and only true things; we’re not simply computers that check the truth of a sentences and then spit out that sentences if it passes the truth-test. The broad context of speech is very important to the appropriateness of that speech, and “all lives matter” at this moment, in this country, as a response to the claim that “black lives matter” fails the relevant pragmatic tests. So as the poster says, at this moment, in this country: all lives can’t matter until black lives matter.
[i] H.P. Grice, “Logic and Conversation (1967, 1987),” in H.P. Grice, Studies in the Way of Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press), pp. 1-143.