Words always matter—so much so that they sometimes represent a battleground for competing interests and ideologies. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” has become something of a cultural dividing line, like wearing a face mask or a MAGA hat. But why?
After all, it is difficult to argue with the proposition that “Black Lives Matter,” just as it is difficult to argue with the common rejoinder to it, “All Lives Matter.” The interpretations of these phrases become problematic, however, when they are taken out of context. We cannot determine what a speaker intends to convey with an utterance without considering the context in which the statement occurs.
This is something of a truism in the field of pragmatics—the branch of linguistics that deals with how people use language—and is a foundational principle in many pragmatic theories of meaning: The meaning a speaker intends to convey is often not clear-cut but must be inferred by the listener. Experts disagree regarding how we infer what other people mean from what they say, but almost no one questions that we regularly use contextual information to figure out what other people’s utterances mean.
The importance of context is particularly clear for understanding words such as “him” or “here” in which listeners must draw inferences about what the speaker means. To whom does ”him” refer? Where is “here?” More relevant, though, is how the meaning of an utterance can be entirely context dependent. Compare, for example, the likely meaning intended by a speaker who says “It’s hard to give a good presentation” in response to the question “What did you think of my presentation?” compared to the same utterance in response to the question “Don’t you think it’s hard to give a good presentation?” In the former context the utterance, “It’s hard to give a good presentation,” is a criticism; in the latter, it’s a confirmation.
So, what is the context for “Black Lives Matter” and the various rejoinders to it? The phrase seems to have originated in 2013 as a hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter) in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin a year earlier. The phrase was first used by a loosely organized, decentralized movement focused on protesting police violence against African Americans. The context of the phrase, and the intention behind its use, was to call attention to the police killing of African Americans, in effect, a reminder that black lives matter too.
Of course, “too” was not and is not part of the phrase. But it was clearly implied in the context in which the phrase initially occurred. In other words, in an alternative universe in which police killings of African Americans did not occur, uttering the phrase, “Blacks Lives Matter,” would be somewhat nonsensical, in effect, a non sequitur. But that’s not the universe we live in. And so in the context of our current world, the intended meaning of the phrase is something along the lines of “the lives of black people matter too, just as much as the lives of other people.”
Shortly after the phrase became popular, the rebuttals “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” began to circulate on social media. So how should “All Lives Matter” be interpreted? What is the intended meaning of this phrase? In isolation, “All Lives Matter” is a truism. Of course, all lives matter. But this phrase did not arise in isolation and was instead a direct response to the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” As a response to “Black Lives Matter,” the phrase functions as a corrective statement meaning something like “No, all lives matter.” But, the intention behind “Black Lives Matter” was not to say that only black lives matter, and so “All Lives Matter” is a response to an unintended meaning of that assertion. It is in this way that “All Lives Matter” is often an attempt to undermine or refute the intended meaning of “Black Lives Matter.”
The field of pragmatics teaches us that context is critical for understanding the meaning of an utterance, whether that utterance occurs in a face-to-face conversation or as a hashtag on social media. The battle of the “Black Lives Matter” phrase continues and can be seen in Vice-President Pence’s recent refusal to even say the words Black Lives Matter. Pragmatics provides us with a deeper understanding of what people are intending to communicate with their words and helps us to understand situations in which people argue about the meaning of what they say.
- By Thomas Holtgraves
Thomas Holtgraves is a professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University where he conducts research on various aspects of language use.
This post is previously published on the Society of Personality and Social Psychology; Character and Context Blog
For Further Reading
Holtgraves, Thomas. (2001) Language as social action: Social psychology and language use. Erlbaum
Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature . New York, NY: Viking
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