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
Peace and Conflict Researcher Spotlight From Online to Offline Peace: Exploring Digital Interventions in Postconflict Societies
In today’s digital era, it can be difficult sometimes to think of the internet as anything but a source of polarization and conflict. Social scientists have highlighted extensive issues with how online spaces enclose individuals in echo chambers and filter bubbles, distorting our perceptions of reality to fit our worldviews and those of our ingroups. Meanwhile, when encounters with those different from ourselves do take place, such interactions often end in heated incivility, belying the vision of greater interconnection social media had promised in its early days.
But findings in peace psychology and allied fields have suggested the importance of intergroup contact to bring about peaceful outcomes. In postconflict societies, past studies showed that dialogue between formerly opposed groups can help bring about reconciliation and reduced prejudice. Would it be possible, then, to utilize online spaces—with their vast, unprecedented capacity to bring people together unhindered by geographical boundaries—to facilitate the same positive impacts?
This Spring, the Peace Psychologist had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Hema Preya Selvanathan, a recent PhD graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a current postdoctoral fellow at the University of Queensland. In her recently published work in Peace and Conflict, she tackles precisely such questions of how online spaces, instead of exacerbating societal tensions, might promote discourses of justice or harmony in former Yugoslavia. Past studies had shown that the two discourses do not necessarily co-occur; that is, justice does not always follow discourses of harmony in postconflict contexts.
Drawing on a 4-week field test on a website called Wedialog.net, Dr. Selvanathan and colleagues found that sustained contact between Bosniaks and Serbs resulted greater group identification and demands for justice, suggesting that hostility over past atrocities may have reduced as a result of the intervention. Exploratory analyses on the content of dialogue showed that over the 4-week period, participants expressed lower levels of anger and anxiety, as well as increased focus on the present over time.
Interdisciplinary in analysis and international in scope, this research was conducted with Dr. Bernhard Leidner also of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, software developer Ivan Ivanek of Wedialog.net based in California, and an international team of colleagues including Dr. Nebojša Petrovic and Dr. Jovana Bjekic of the University of Belgrade in Serbia, Nedim Prelic of the University of Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and computer scientist Dr. Johannes Krugel of the Technical University of Munich in Germany.
In the interview that follows, we discuss with Dr. Selvanathan some of the motivations and challenges she encountered for this project. Questions and responses have been slightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
PP: In the introduction to your paper, you note that "there are numerous calls for dialogue on contentious issues" of our time. While extensive research appears to concentrate on how digital spaces fuel polarization among groups, your work examines how an online platform can facilitate discourses of justice and harmony. What would you say led you to pursue this line of inquiry?
HS: I think a lot of research has shown both sides of the coin. On the one hand, online platforms can help promote solidarity and a sense of togetherness in confronting injustice and inequality (e.g., the role of social media in mobilising protests). On the other hand, it can also be echo chambers where we seek to engage with others who share our views, which can lead to radicalisation (e.g., how white nationalist extremism gain adherents online). So it was sort of an open question of whether an online platform that brought together two groups with a history of conflict, would promote positive intergroup outcomes or lead to negative ones.
PP: Unlike much of traditional psychological research which involves laboratory control or strict survey procedures, you and your colleagues conduct a field test in this paper. What novel challenges—and conversely, what benefits—do you think this approach conferred on your work?
HS: We faced several challenges. It was difficult to recruit participants for a project like this, since we were asking for quite a bit of time commitment on their end. Participants had to create and log in using an account on Wedialog.net (like you would do on a social media site) and we had no control over whether participants actually engaged in the dialogue during their free time. We also faced technical glitches and complications in terms of linking up participants online posts with their survey responses. To resolve this, we worked closely with our collaborator Ivan Ivanek, a software developer who created the Wedialog.net platform, and also worked with a computer scientist, Johannes Krugel, who helped us extract the data from the platform and convert it to a format that we could then analyse.
In terms of benefits, I believe that by conducting an intervention study, participants were very engaged in the study. They got a chance to voice how they feel about the conflict, the relations between groups, and their hopes for the future. We saw that the dialogue was quite personally meaningful to them and many provided rich content. This richness does not really come through with the traditional survey measures in the pre and post surveys. This is why we ended up doing exploratory analyses on the content of the dialogue using LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) because we were hoping to capture that richness in some way.
PP: Another way this work valuably departs from the mainstream is by working with non-Western samples. In recent scholarship, psychologists have discussed the problem of how so much of psychology is based on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) populations, whereas your work explicitly engages the contexts of postconflict societies in Bosnia and Serbia. How do you see this dynamic informing or complicating your research, and do you have thoughts on the WEIRD-ness of psychology more broadly?
HS: I think a lot of social psychological research is American-centric and this has limited the kind of research questions we ask, and the applications of our work more broadly. Since we focused on the post-conflict context of former Yugoslavia, it drove us to develop specific dialogue topics that tapped into the experiences of Bosniak and Serb communities. These topics and intervention itself may not be directly transferable or applicable to other post-conflict contexts, but we should always be aware of the constraints of our work. It appears as though when the samples are from the US, people rarely talk about or consider the constraints of their research. I think working with non-WEIRD samples makes you really aware how many unanswered questions there are and how inequality can be reproduced in the scientific enterprise (e.g., privileging certain regions/groups over others).
PP: How do you think the findings of your work will "inform future interventions in postconflict societies"? Is translational or action research something you are engaged or interested in?
HS: I think one concrete way we inform future interventions in post-conflict societies is by providing a pilot test of an online dialogue platform that others can use and adapt for their purposes. I know that Ivan Ivanek, the creator of Wedialog.net, has intentions of engaging multiple communities on the platform for a wide-scale intervention. Our study was just a first step towards making this a reality. Having Wedialog.net accessible to multiple users would require more collaboration and partnerships with practitioners and community organizations, and this takes a lot of time and leg work before it can take off.
I am very much interested in doing more translational and community-oriented research. However, getting direct access to communities is difficult, especially if you are not a member of the group. This project for example was only possible because of our collaborators in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.
PP: Where do you see this particular project fitting in with your career as a psychologist? Would you say there are broader themes which animate and shape the way you formulate and engage research questions? Any dream projects you'd like to someday pursue?
HS: This project has helped me become a more internationally-engaged scholar. We got to work together as a team even though I have not met many of my collaborators in person. From this I learned so much about doing culturally sensitive research. I gravitate towards research questions and topics on justice and inequality, and I hope that my research will be able to contribute to social change. I think it would be a dream to be able to collaborate with an organization on the ground to do a larger-scale field intervention in conflict-ridden societies.
- Interview of Dr. Hema Selvanathan by Joshua Uyheng
Dr. Selvanathan and her colleagues’ work may be read online or in print in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology. Full bibliographic information is provided below.
Each issue of the Peace Psychologist presents a spotlight feature on recently published work in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, the flagship journal of APA’s Division 48. This section aims to promote exciting peace psychological scholarship among the Division readership as well as bring to the surface the often lesser-known, human side to academic research in peace psychology. We are especially interested in highlighting the work of early career scholars. If you would like to volunteer your work or any other recently published article for a feature, kindly contact Joshua Uyheng <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Selvanathan, H. P., Leidner, B., Petrović, N., Prelić, N., Ivanek, I., Krugel, J., & Bjekić, J. (2019). Wedialog.Net: A quantitative field test of the effects of online intergroup dialogue in promoting justice- versus harmony-oriented outcomes in Bosnia and Serbia. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 25(4), 287–299. https://doi.org/10.1037/pac0000395
This article and interview was originally posted in The Peace Psychologist:
Uyheng, J. (2020, Summer). From online to offline peace: Exploring digital interventions in post-conflict societies. The Peace Psychologist. http://peacepsychology.org/the-peace-psychologist
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.