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An example being the phrase "White lives matter" (or even "All lives matter") as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Another example would be: "I'm straight and I'm not ashamed," as a response to the LGBTQ movement.

I personally feel these things being morally wrong, as they in my opinion condone the systematic oppression of mentioned BLM/LGBT.

On the other hand, these statements by themselves aren't hostile in their essence, as without the context they only bear a positive message in a sense. While they're dismissing the original argument within the existing context, they are not actually contradicting it.

So I'm wondering is this a known phenomena? Is it some kind of sarcasm? Can it be explained why I "feel" like these statements are wrong but are not able to logically put down exactly why?

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7 Answers 7

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This is related to what is called the illocutionary force of an assertion. So, for example, if you enter the room and I say "there's coffee on the table", I'm not just saying something true, I'm inviting you to take some coffee. If you take some coffee, it would be silly for me to say "I said there was coffee, I didn't say you could have some", because then the question would be "so why did you say there was coffee?".

The point is that in general, our assertions serve a purpose, which depends on the context and not only on the literal meaning of the assertion. These phenomena were analysed by Austin ("how to do things with words") and Grice (theory of implicatures) among others.

In the context you're mentioning, we must ask ourselves why the speaker says "white lives matter": what she or he is trying to achieve, beyond the literal meaning? In effect, it looks like the speaker is trying to call into question our concern for black lives specifically, basically saying that there's no particular reason to be worried about the condition of black people in our society any more than that of white people. The aim of the assertion is to cancel out the illocutionary force of "black lives matter" (which is also a speech act aiming at drawing attention to the problems affecting black people specifically). Speech acts like "white lives matter too" can be considered immoral in a society where black lives are more threatened than white lives.

Sometimes "white lives matter" comes with a pretense not to understand the illocutionary force at all ("I'm just stating a fact, why are you annoyed?"), but this is bad faith: we all understand speech acts in ordinary life, and usually, pressing the speaker would reveal that she or he is not really concerned about black lives.

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    +1 How does one distinguish between an assertive and a declarative illocution in these examples
    – user59124
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 15:34
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    @SteveSaban all locutions serve a purpose, so there's not necessarily a clear distinction. Some locutions aim at sharing useful information that the audience doesn't already have. This is the closest to a pure assertion one can get. When this is not the case (as in these examples), the aim can be to make the audience focus on something specific. Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 15:46
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    "usually, pressing the speaker would reveal that she or he is not really concerned about black lives" - how would this be revealed? I've rarely seen people explicitly admit they aren't concerned about black lives, but you have presented a case that saying "white lives matter" in some context would already strongly imply one doesn't care about black lives. Also, I might say this implication has less to do with whether black lives are strictly speaking more threatened and more to do with whether arguments to that effect has been sufficiently addressed (which is similar, but not quite the same).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 8:53
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It's not morally wrong per se, the sentence sounds after all pretty obvious and could be innocuous in another context.

Yet in the current context it's more often than not a deliberate and childish attempt at provocation, done in the intent to provoke anger (as was clearly the goal of West and Owens, as I imagine you are referring to their recent stunt).

The context is that US policemen are much more trigger happy when dealing with black citizens, and the slogan "black lives matter" is aimed at reminding people that they shouldn't remain apathetic when yet another shooting happens.

The slogan itself is of course not perfect, as it has to condense into a few, striking words, a complex social situation.

The response "all lives matter" or "white lives matter" are usually aimed at diverting attention from this specific problem and simultaneously return the accusation of racism.

Similarly "I'm proud to be gay" is aimed at refusing the shame bigotted people try to attach to gay people. "Pride" here means refusing the stigmata, not being boastful about one's sexuality. Diverting the slogan into "I'm proud to be straight" makes no sense, as straight people never had to bear a social stigmata, or hide in order to live their relationships.

This is a common rhetorical tactic to use seemingly innocuous or common sense sentences in a context where they clearly have a nefarious intent, like "if you can't afford to do time don't do crime" or "if you have nothing to hide why fear the police?" when facing obvious cases of police brutality or abusive privacy infringement. Then feign surprise when criticized and fall back behind the innocuous nature of the words outside of the context.

In all those cases, the tactic is to deliberately provoke anger, then when the desired anger is manifested to claim that people have been mentally conditioned to treat anyone who opposes their ideology as an enemy. Look for conflict and then play the victim.

One can usually distinguish between good faith, ignorant actors and bad faith actors by engaging in conversation, clearing any misunderstanding about the slogan and observe the reaction. As always it's important to judge a posteriori.

More than the words themselves, it's the nefarious intent and hypocritical tactic behind them that feel wrong.

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  • To provoke anger of who at whom? And the same question with regard to the original slogan? Who were BLM trying to get the mob angry at? And who did they get the mob angry at? theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/31/…
    – BillOnne
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 3:03
  • @BillOnne whataboutism and reversal accusations are out of the scope of OP's question. Wether BLM applied the same tactic is irrelevant.
    – armand
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 5:04
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Although Ruyant and armand (and also, in his own way, Gudeman) have addressed the question from most relevant angles, yet per your (the OP's) comment, "I can't really speak about the situation in the USA," I would like to try to go over how variations in culture, between nations, can affect the semantics/pragmatics at issue.

So suppose that you live in a country that has often portrayed itself as a shining beacon of freedom, or human rights, or whatever. An impartial observer discovers that this self-portrayal is not only generically biased but profoundly dishonest. For example, this beacon-country kept a large percentage of its population as slaves on grounds of skin color, for almost a century. Afterwards, practices like redlining and outright massacres or summary executions continue to damage life prospects for the freed slaves and their descendants. Moreover, this same nation has proceeded to kill millions of civilians in other adjacent or overseas countries while partially simulating, say, a nuclear holocaust in at least one instance; and almost all of this killing was racially "informed." The same "beacon" also criminalizes a substance less dangerous than acetaminophen while oppressing users of this substance on racially disparate grounds. So we know that this nation has a sharp problem with racism, and when this nation elects its first president whose skin color coincides with the aforementioned group, we see a great many people react to this president with accusations ranging from "they're lazy" to even "they're the Antichrist."

Then, suppose that the next president promotes a racist conspiracy theory while overseeing an uptake in civilian deaths caused by their armed forces, in contrast to the previous president (who, surprisingly, apologized for part of that nuclear-holocaust simulation decades earlier). We also see an increase, within the "beacon," of hostility towards yet another group (on ethnic grounds), hostility that is supported by that newer president, even after they leave office.

But it gets better: suppose that the even newer new president (the one after the above-described example) also has a racism problem and is continuing the previous president's plans for possible further nuclear-holocaust simulations.

Such a country seems fairly dangerous, to other people, and to its own. Now, in fact, this country is dangerous to all of its own people in general, so there's that. Say that it was people with blue skin who satisfied the above descriptions. Perhaps saying, "Blue lives count!" could be construed as failing to recognize how dangerous the involved government is for everyone under its sun. On the other hand, perhaps not many people in this "beacon" are familiar with the level of danger they're in (and that their ancestors were in), so saying, "Orange lives count!" counts(!) as a deeper failure to register the danger (a failure to register the accentuated local danger to people with blue skin).

Or suppose one protester says, "Women are not sex objects!" and someone then says, "Men are not sex objects!" Superficially, both statements are equally true, but in a cultural history in which women are the primary targets of sexual objectification (including to the point of the use of force, by many men, to procure sex), one imagines that it would make more sense to focus on the first exclamation instead of the second.

Anyway, the point is, there's a higher chance of pragmatic hostility, among speakers of certain phrases in a country like the hypothetical "beacon," than in countries with a less destructive relevant history. (Imagine being in Germany and saying, "German lives matter!" if someone else said, "Jewish lives matter!" Also imagine being the speaker of the first statement, defending the statement on grounds that, "Germany doesn't persecute Jewish people anymore.")

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    Thanks for adding this bit of context. Context is everything in understanding the intention behind an utterance.
    – armand
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 14:05
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Not always.

Yes, "All Lives Matter" is a response to "Black Lives Matter". But response doesn't imply opposition. If some people observe something they oppose, and say something to express that opposition, and then others say something in response, that doesn't mean they favour that thing. The purpose of a response might be to point out, for example,

  • that the important issue is one of a wider scope than the one mentioned
  • that the issue mentioned has a wider scope than the first speakers acknowledge
  • that the issue mentioned is one of many that also deserve consideration

Here, the responder's point might be, for example, that the issues that oppress some black people also oppress some other people who are not black. Or, seeing as BLM is a USA movement, their point might be that it's not just US people who matter; the importance of an issue is not determined by how important it is to US people.

Now there might be people who say "White Lives Matter". However, the stance is not always put in such a racist way, and equating ALM with WLM needlessly misrepresents this stance. ALM is not necessarily pragmatically hostile.

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    While this might in theory be true, "All Lives Matter" and "White Lives Matter" are both very strongly associated with simple opposition to BLM, to dismiss concerns about black people often/generally being treated more poorly than others due to their race, and it's seemingly based on the perception that black people are being elevated above white people, as opposed to simply striving towards equality. The "All Lives Matter" Wikipedia page lists a bunch of explicitly-anti-BLM ALM supporters (which overshadows the pro-BLM supporters mentioned).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 19, 2022 at 8:23
  • Maybe BLM rates some opposition. theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/31/…
    – BillOnne
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 3:12
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My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son. Husband to a murdered wife.

With this most iconic of speeches, the Gladiator semantically gave an answer to who he is, and pragmatically, threatened the emperor. The following "And I will have my vengeance" is rather more explicit, but it's not necessary to understand what is being said.

Father to a murdered son. The pragmatic implication here is one of accusation. Commodus had him killed. We and they know that. If that weren't so, it would at most reveal something about Maximus's state of mind. In actual fact, it moves into hostility specifically because it recalls an evil that has been done.

Loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The pragmatic implication is one of tribe. Commodus is politically unpopular. He has his guards and such, but there are many on the other side. There is hostility implicit in identifying with the icon of that other side.

General of the Felix Legions. The pragmatic implication here is one of action. As general, he is not some isolated guy on a soap box. He is implicitly a man who inspires action in armies who are personally loyal to him. Speech affects the world, and while semantically Maximus just giving his CV, pragmatically he is calling such armies to join him in open revolt.

My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Again, he's just answering the question. But that is the point that you can first see Commodus worry. The key here is context. There is nothing about that sentence as a series of words which conveys anything more serious than "My name is John Smith", but in that context it wraps up everything I've said above. Indeed, the name "Maximus" would soon become a chant, again wrapping up "We're on this side, and you're not."

I should not presume to suggest that this is all that is all that is going on in the scene. It simply illustrates some of the the ways that semantically factual language can indeed be incisive and hostile. I'll swing back to these, but first I wanted briefly to note a few subtle points.

  • All of this stuff is hostile. It is not necessarily morally wrong. Of course that's helped by this being a film and Commodus being a creep and regicide being explicitly a-okay. But even in real life, and even when we aren't the villains, opposition isn't automatically evil.
  • These examples are deliberately on the more explicit end, which is helpful for illustration. Real world cases are often a lot more vague, and people will often prevaricate on exactly what they mean.
  • These statements are all made by one man. At the point that the same things are said by multiple people, the exact implications will necessarily vary. It is polite to assume the best intentions, but it is prudent to be aware that at least some people do not have the best intentions.

Now, why might someone detect hostility in saying that white, all, or indeed black lives matter?

As with Marcus Aurelius, there is a tribal element. BLM is what a certain group says. ALM is what a different group says. For the most part, neither group actually wants to suggest that any lives don't matter. But you nevertheless feel a threat just because the signal is that there are two groups and this isn't yours. Moreover, you probably feel moral offense because at least to some extent you perceive the other group as the bad guys.

As with Meridius Junior, you feel hostility because you feel accused of some wrongdoing. This is perhaps less when Ye West does his WLM stunt because Ye is black. It is in every case a lesser accusation than actual murder! Nevertheless if you're talking to a white guy saying "No, we have to stick with All lives matter" there is an implicit accusation that BLM means his doesn't. You can deny it means that (at least to you, which I'll come back to) but that doesn't stop you feeling the force of his genuine concern for his life and kids and so on.

As with our general, you feel hostility because it is a call to action. I do not mean that it is a call to any sort of violence or destruction, although bad actors associate to all movements. Even at the most gentle political discussion over tea and biscuits, there is disagreement between people who broadly think that racial inequality should be resolved by focusing resources on the typically poorer race, and the others who broadly think that racial inequality should be resolved by supporting everyone who needs help whatever their race. Here the call to action might affect, say, government spending. With that disagreement about who gets what money, there's plenty of room for hostility.

Finally, there is context and slogan, and all the ambiguity that comes with that. Even in the comments on this question, there are people saying that what BLM really means is .... Meanwhile the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation is listing demands such as to convict ex-President Donald Trump. That is a plausible political opinion, but it is prima facie a different political opinion from "Police shouldn't arbitrarily shoot black men." There is a similar range of opinion behind all the other statements, although they don't have a convenient demand-making organisation to illustrate the range. In reality, some people saying "All lives matter" will be after an excuse to keep unjust enrichment, while others are just pushing for a broad and consistent politico-legal framework, and others still may want to highly race-specific oppression against other races when that occurs. A lot of the reason that you pick up hostility, then, is that both people from their tribe and yours are arguing different and sometimes odious things under the cover of innocuous slogans. For this reason, slogans make for great rallying cries, and terrible propositional arguments!

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I guess you’re asking for a analysis spelling out the mechanisms by which those sentences come to mean or have they effect they do to you; i.e. where their implied meaning comes from in spite of their explicit meaning.

I personally think the concept of a “slogan” is a pretty unifying concept to understand these phrases. A slogan is like a symbol or a logo. For example, the Nazi swastika is immediately recognized and understand to carry, by many people, support for a social group or movement. As humans that consume media, form memories with emotional valences, and develop moral attitudes and beliefs about different social abstract constructs like ideologies, movements, schools of thought, a slogan has rhetorical effect - it carries meaning and an emotional effect. You “understand” the meaning of the phrase “White Lives Matter” because you associate it with social movements you have read about or observed that are stored in your memory. Words, symbols and concepts activate huge semantic networks in our mind, carrying all the connotations and implicatures we’ve acquired over our entire lives.

I personally hold the opposite view, I do not think these things should be considered immoral if stated sincerely and with non-sarcastic intention. Coming back to the swastika, a swastika is a common symbol in a variety of Asian cultures where it doesn’t have the Nazi connotation. A symbol - a phrase, a picture, some representative concept - can’t be made inherently immoral just because it has one association, amongst all of its possible meanings, that is considered immoral. It’s like symbolic warfare, where instead of being opposed to specific, inherently immoral actions like killing, you are trying extend that determination of absolute moral weight to something related but not identical, trying to forbid nothing but pictures. I think strict ideas of moral responsibility have to have a tight boundary around those things we consider inherently immoral, not those things that might have a dislocated causative influence on something else that’s immoral; it would become intractable because there would be too many hypothetically immoral possible futures from a wide variety of present actions. At some point, everyone will agree that some line has to be drawn in where the moral responsibility for distant ripple effects of your actions has to end. The phrase “white lives matter” should be given a fair assessment of the range of things it could mean, given its implicatures, and not only choosing one of those implicatures (probably because it’s most salient to you because it has the most emotional prominence).

I also believe there are implicit levels of “immorality” in society - things that are fully illegal; things which are not but may still be heavily socially regulated like getting you banned from events, groups, platforms or fired from companies; and things which you may personally be against but which you yourself wouldn’t actually want to universally forbid.

As for Kanye West, many commentators have asked a fair range of questions of what was the intention. Is it a surreal, nihilistic, anticonformist provocation to merely highlight how a mere string of three words has become taboo by convention? Is it a contrarian political statement which is to sincerely express general (yet not actually white-specific) opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement? Or is Kanye West actually a white supremacist, given that many newspapers have pointed out the ACLU considers it hate speech and a white supremacist slogan?

The context and the intention are important factors to weigh. I would be against an actual white supremacist brandishing that logo to imply white supremacy. But I support people pointing out how something has been habituated into perceived immorality solely by convention: as you said, the words “white lives matter” don’t mean anything bad purely explicitly and on their own, so there should still be breathing room to say them in the right context, instead of strict, discrete classification of mere words as totalistically correct or incorrect, allowed and not allowed. It can alienate white people, making them feel unfairly treated and endlessly characterised by default as racists deserving of kneejerk moral condemnation, to hear that the mere words “white people’s lives are valuable” is considered racist hate speech, causing them to lose empathy with social groups seeking empowerment.

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“White Lives Matter,” which the Anti-Defamation League has identified as hate speech…has been adopted by the white supremacist movement.—-NEW York Times 25/10/2022

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    Black Lives Matter is simply not about wanting to belong in general, it's about black people being disproportionately assaulted and murdered by police and others due to the colour of their skin. In that context, "white lives matter" makes very little sense as a simple "too" statement: it's necessarily challenging the implication that there is any such disproportionate treatment.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 19, 2022 at 8:32
  • I wasn’t commenting on the slogan: ‘black lives matter’ but on ‘white lives matter’. Which, I believe, was the theme of the sting.
    – Duck
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 11:53
  • "I wasn’t commenting on the slogan: ‘black lives matter’" - your answer says "By saying ‘black lives matter’ we are saying...". That very much sounds like a comment on BLM, and you can't really discuss the meaning of a reply ("white lives matter") to a statement ("black lives matter"), while disregarding the actual meaning of the original statement.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 8:22

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