All lives matter versus black lives matter: How does the philosophy of language shed light on the disagreement?

How Did “All Lives Matter” Come to Oppose “Black Lives Matter”? A Philosopher of Language Weighs In.

How Did “All Lives Matter” Come to Oppose “Black Lives Matter”? A Philosopher of Language Weighs In.

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
July 18 2016 11:11 AM

How Did “All Lives Matter” Come to Oppose “Black Lives Matter”? A Philosopher of Language Weighs In.

The claim that “Black Lives Matter” is a way of pointing out that black Americans are especially likely to be brutalized by the police and criminal justice system.

Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

You don’t doubt that we live in strange times. But if you did, I would direct your attention to the debate currently raging across the United States between the proponents of two three-word slogans—both of which are, in a sense, obviously true and each of which is obviously compatible with the other. (Indeed, one is a logical consequence of the other.) I’m talking, of course, about “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.”

How did we get here? I don’t mean: How did Black Lives Matter start? I mean: How did these two phrases come to express disagreement with one another? Some prominent philosophers and social theorists—Judith Butler, Jason Stanley, Chris Lebron, The Funky Academic—have addressed the question. I agree with much of what they’ve said, but I’d like to add my two cents. I think the philosophy of language can help us understand what’s going on, and what I’ve found in some of my research on moral slogans might shed a unique kind of light on the issue.


One obstacle to diagnosing the disagreement is semantic; it’s rooted in what “matter” means. Saying that something matters is ambiguous between, roughly, a claim about what we ought to care about and a claim about what we actually do care about. It won’t hurt to have labels for these meanings; we can call the first claim normative and the second claim descriptive. There’s a similar ambiguity in claims about rights. In a sense, most people think slaves in the American colonies had a right not to be owned. This is a normative claim about what ought to be the case; it’s one explanation of why slavery was wrong. But in another sense, we might say that slaves had no such right. Of course, that’s the problem: Blacks and Native Americans didn’t have the same rights as whites. This is a descriptive claim about the history of slavery; it’s true just because whites owned large numbers of black and Native American slaves. Similarly, supporters of BLM are making a normative claim to the effect that, roughly, we ought to care (more) about black lives. But they’re making that claim because they believe the corresponding descriptive claim is false—people don’t actually care, or care enough, about black lives. They’re making the normative claim to effect change in the descriptive reality.

The slogans conceal one central point of descriptive disagreement. Many proponents of All Lives Matter, I think, believe both the (uncontroversial) normative claim and the descriptive claim that all lives matter. They think that we do, in general, care enough about black lives. (A recent Pew poll found that whites are significantly less likely than blacks to support BLM and significantly less likely to think that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in a number of different domains. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found, incredibly, that 53 percent of Americans think discrimination against whites is as significant a problem today as discrimination against blacks and Latinos.) Ironically, the disagreement is that proponents of BLM think that, in the descriptive sense, black lives don’t matter.

But that doesn’t explain how the slogans are used to express disagreement. Part of the explanation is pragmatic—it’s rooted in how we use language in interaction. Last week, Rudy Giuliani declared that the claim that black lives matter is “inherently racist.” If he’s being sincere at all, he’s thinking of the claim as involving what linguists and philosophers of language call a quantity implicature. If a friend and I are trying to figure out how much cash we have on us, and I say that I have $10, my friend will assume that that’s all I have. I’m not saying outright that I have no more than $10, though; I’m implicating or suggesting it. The philosopher Paul Grice explained this in terms of a very general truth about the nature of conversation. In cooperative conversations, we give as much information as is required by the goals of the conversation. If the goal is to figure out how much money we have, and I have more than $10, it would be uncooperative to withhold information about that additional money. Assuming I’m being cooperative, then, if I say I have $10, I must mean that I have no more than $10. So, Giuliani might think, if I believed that non-black lives matter, I wouldn’t just say that black lives matter.

But if that’s what Giuliani thinks, he’s wrong. If the goal of our national political conversation were just to ask everyone to list exhaustively all of the things that they think matter, then saying “Black Lives Matter” would implicate that only black lives matter. But of course that’s not the goal of our national conversation. In particular, at least one important goal of that conversation is to point out social problems that don’t receive enough attention. The claim that “Black Lives Matter” does just that, and it does it without denying the existence of other social problems. It is a way of pointing out that black Americans are especially likely to be brutalized by the police and criminal justice system—and underserved by our schools, barred from voting, and gerrymandered into political irrelevance. (Perhaps the claim that “All Lives Matter” could be used to call attention to ways in which all Americans are affected, to a lesser extent, by some of these problems. But it isn’t.)


Now, that explains the appearance of disagreement between the two slogans. The disagreement isn’t merely apparent, though. Part of the genuine disagreement lies in the nature of slogans themselves. Consider how moral slogans differ pragmatically from nonslogans that mean roughly the same thing. How does a typical use of a moral slogan like “Meat is murder” differ from a use of “It’s morally wrong to eat meat”? I think in at least two (related) ways. First: The former, but not the latter, is an explicit expression of group solidarity. When I say “Meat is murder,” I align myself with a certain social movement—the international vegetarian cause. Second: The former, but not the latter, invokes the moral authority of that group. It’s a bit like the difference between saying “Rich people are the worst” and saying “Eat the rich” or “Blessed are the meek”. “Rich people are the worst” doesn’t, by itself, suggest how that claim is supposed to be justified or who you can pass the buck to if challenged. “Eat the rich” and “Blessed are the meek” do. So someone uttering “Black Lives Matter” disagrees with someone uttering “All Lives Matter” in at least these two ways—in terms of which groups they align with and in terms of which moral authorities they appeal to. This disagreement, unlike the one Giuliani has dreamt up, is very real. It will take more than a little philosophy of language to clear it up.

I remember there were people carrying “All Lives Matter” signs at the first BLM action I went to. They were there in support of BLM. They didn’t disagree with other marchers—or if they did, it was over the appropriateness of using that phrase to support the BLM cause. The point about slogans can explain this fact; they didn’t disagree because “All Lives Matter” hadn’t yet become the slogan that it is today.

What are we to make of this? After all, slogans are useful things. “Black Lives Matter”, for one, has been enormously successful as a rallying cry for social change. And calls for national unity are often disguised attempts to prevent oppressed groups from expressing their specific grievances. But perhaps at this point, at least when we’re talking to the unconverted, slogans unnecessarily deepen disagreement. Perhaps the moral is that, if we want to reach greater agreement on the problems of racial discrimination facing us today—to the extent that that’s possible—we should move away from sloganeering and toward substantive dialogue.

In any case, it’s worth a shot. If only there were some tidy encapsulation of the point—preferably one shorter than 140 characters.


Ian Olasov is the founder of Brooklyn Public Philsophers and a doctoral student in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center.