Each year, the Southern Poverty Law Center, of which I am the president, compiles and publishes a census of domestic hate groups. Our list, which is cited extensively by journalists, academics and government officials alike, provides an important barometer—not the only one, of course—to help us understand the state of hate and extremism in America.…
How Did “All Lives Matter” Come to Oppose “Black Lives Matter”? A Philosopher of Language Weighs In.
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—Jrudith Butle, 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.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, lashed out against the Black Lives Matter movement on Sunday, accusing it of ignoring black-on-black crime, inspiring violence against the police and promoting racism.
“When you say black lives matter, that’s inherently racist,” Mr. Giuliani said in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Black lives matter. White lives matter. Asian lives matter. Hispanic lives matter. That’s anti-American, and it’s racist.”
His comments came as the country grappled with pain, confusion and anger after last week’s two fatal shootings of African-American men by the police and the killing of five police officers in Dallas, the deadliest assault on American law enforcement since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
As members of the Black Lives Matter movement and other concerned citizens pushed forward on Sunday with protests over police shootings, politicians, law enforcement officials and African-American leaders took to the airwaves, most of them with messages of hope, unity and understanding.
Mr. Giuliani, a longtime promoter of aggressive policing, struck a different chord, saying the Black Lives Matter movement had targeted police officers.
“They sing rap songs about killing police officers, and they talk about killing police officers, and they yell it out at their rallies and the police officers hear it,” he said.
Mr. Giuliani said the movement unfairly focused on killings at the hands of the police when it should be focusing on murders committed by civilians in black neighborhoods.
“When there are 60 shootings in Chicago over the Fourth of July and 14 murders, and Black Lives Matter is nonexistent,” he said, “and then there’s one police murder of very questionable circumstances and we hear from Black Lives Matter, we wonder: Do black lives matter, or only the very few black lives that are killed by white policemen?”
Terrence Cunningham, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who appeared on the same show, was quick to dismiss Mr. Giuliani’s comments. “I wouldn’t make that connection,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s Black Lives Matter that put a target on those police officers,” Mr. Cunningham continued, adding, “Unfortunately, I think, you know, people have really polarized this issue. If we really want to work towards solutions, we need to work together.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who also appeared on the show, suggested that Mr. Giuliani was partly to blame for the rift.
“He actually presided over one of the most discredited areas and periods of policing in the City of New York,” she said, “which is, in fact, responsible for a lot of the tension that exists between police officers and people in African-American communities.”
They were not the only ones to point fingers.
In an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who is considered a potential running mate for Donald J. Trump, criticized Hillary Clinton for saying on Friday that white people needed to start listening to “legitimate cries” from African-Americans.
Mr. Flynn said that Mrs. Clinton was “totally irresponsible when she talked about white people being to blame.”
William J. Bratton, the New York police commissioner, who appeared on Sunday on multiple shows, was among the many who emphasized unity.
“This is a shared responsibility, trying to bridge these differences that are becoming quite evident through many of these videos,” Mr. Bratton said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We have come a long way; we have come a very long way. And I can speak for New York, but quite clearly events this past week show we have really almost just begun the journey.”
Separately on Sunday, as Mr. Trump has faced skepticism from some Republicans over his stances on abortion and other social issues, General Flynn, a Democrat, indicated a willingness to break from his party affiliation. During his appearance on “This Week,” he voiced support for abortion rights and brushed aside the issue of same-sex marriage on the grounds that it was less important than matters like education and immigration.