When Not All Lives Matter

Many people, when confronted with ideas like feminism or “Black Lives Matter” will respond as though offended.

“Shouldn’t we,” they will say, a slight smirk on their lips, “instead of calling it feminism, call it humanism? After all, all people face issues in their life.”

The sentiment is very easily articulated, and seems so simple that it has to be correct, right? And yet it couldn’t be more wrong. By simplifying our discourse, they fail to capture important truths.

I will be using “Black Lives Matter” vs “All Lives Matter”, but we can abstract and analogize my arguments to “feminism” vs “humanism” or other related arguments.

Paul Grice, the influential linguist, had this to say about the nature of speech:

make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

What does this mean? It means that listeners and speakers abide by certain cooperative principles, which have been dubbed the “Gricean Maxims”. The choice of “All Lives Matter” over “Black Lives Matter” violates the Gricean Maxims of Relation and Quantity.

What does “All Lives Matter” say that “Black Lives Matter” does not? Contrasting “All Lives Matter” with “Black Lives Matter” – is semantically equivalent to saying “Black Lives Matter and also White Lives Matter”.

Maxim of Relation

Be Relevant

AirspeedThe Maxim of Relation is simple. One does not simply bring random information into a conversation. If your friend is talking to you about the death of her mother, you don’t respond with “Did you know that the flamingo can only eat when its head is upside down?” even if you precede it with “I’m sorry to hear that your mother is dead”.

The assertion that black lives matter meaningful and relative to the visibility of the complicated relationship between black America and our legal system in a way that the assertion that white lives matter is not, despite its obvious truth.

Maxim of Quantity

Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

Do not make your contribution more informative than is required

For example, if somebody asks you “what’s up?” and you respond “stuff”, you have failed to make an informative contribution. On the other hand, a complete list of everything you did in the last week – from tooth brushing to bowel movements –  falls under the possible answers to “what’s up?” it is overly informative.

By correcting from “Black Lives Matter” to “All Lives Matter”, one is asserting that new information is being offered, namely that “White Lives Matter”.

15thamendemntBut this is not new information. America’s history has never questioned that white lives matter. Our very constitution holds that all people are created equal, but it was only much later that we extended “people” to include non-whites. As such, historically speaking, the truth that white lives matter is self-evident. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, and Michael Brown – let alone the ensuing events in Ferguson – have strongly called into question the notion that black lives do matter, which is what makes the assertion “Black Lives Matter” meaningful.

2+2=5One does not sit around discussing self-evident truths. After all, while one might discuss why 2+2=4, or what it means that 2+2=4, one does not discuss if 2+2=4. As such, saying “All Lives Matter” is equivalent to saying “Black Lives Matter, and also 2+2=4”. To do so is to be an uncooperative speaker with the effect of derailing the message of “Black Lives Matter” to also discuss something universally accepted as true.


Yes, All Lives Matter. But Black Lives Matter means “Black Lives Matter too“, or more specifically “Black Lives Matter too or at least they should but our current execution isn’t really on point there” not “only Black Lives Matter”. The problem with “All Lives Matter” is that it is not a cooperative statement, as shown above. It is a co-opting statement, one which takes one important issue and dismisses it to instead talk about something else.

Whether people want to talk about something else because race makes them uncomfortable to talk about or because they think racial bias is not a problem facing modern society is unknown, but it should be pointed out and critiqued, lest it come to define our rhetoric in an unhelpful way.

Also these tweets are just perfect

*We can talk later about how problematic it is that race has largely been framed in terms of black and white at a later point, but it is true.

5 Comments on “When Not All Lives Matter

  1. Pingback: The Subtle Racism of “Post-Racial” Activism | Gentleman Gustaf

  2. As a related side note, it might be worth mentioning that defying Grice’s maxims is often a signal that someone is attempting to engage in humor. This signal is most often found in absurdist humor (think Steve Martin’s 1978 live show, or Monty Python’s sketches), or in jokes revolving around the social ineptitude of the speaker. Misunderstood context (whether intentionally misunderstood or not), and thus Grice-defying speech, often crops up in these genres of humor. All of which suggests that the phrase “All lives matter” has another potential linguistic interpretation: it may be an attempt to co-opt an important message, or it could be a painful attempt at humor in poor taste. Neither option is very flattering.

    For an apropos example of Steve Martin’s stand-up, which is admittedly older than I am, try this (probably NSFW): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0GQfyVBEsw#t=296

    There are other excellent examples of the same phenomenon throughout the rest of his performance (starting with this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2qeZcHcSGQ).


  3. Pingback: When Not All Lives Matter | My Left Blogosphere

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