The Apparent Conflict Between Universal and Particular Language
How to name specific grievances without undermining universal principles.
One recurring point of contention in political debates is what language we should use to discuss matters of moral and political significance. Many on the progressive left prefer particularist moral language, which emphasizes the specific needs and grievances of particular groups. Others prefer to use universalistic language, which refuses to draw distinctions between groups and focuses on what unites us. The paradigm of this disagreement is the debate between those who prefer the slogan “all lives matter” and those who prefer “black lives matter,” although the conflict is larger than this. For example, many progressives have adopted slogans like “black is beautiful” or “the future is female” that those on the right dislike.
As heated as these debates over language can be, there is not any inherent conflict between universalist and particularist language. “All lives matter” entails “black lives matter.” And similarly, “black lives matter” is fully consistent with “all lives matter.” So the people who say “black lives matter” and the people who say “all lives matter” are not really disagreeing with one another. Yet they certainly act like they disagree. What gives?
The problem stems from the phenomenon that philosophers of language call “pragmatics” (as opposed to “semantics,” which concerns the literal meaning of sentences). The concept behind pragmatics is that sentences frequently imply much more than they say. One standard example is from Paul Grice, the 20th-century philosopher who developed an influential theory of pragmatics. Suppose you read a letter of recommendation that a professor wrote for one of her students, and the letter says, “This student is punctual and has excellent handwriting.” You would understand that to be a very weak letter of recommendation. Yet the letter itself doesn’t explicitly say, “This is a poor student.” So how is that implied? Well, if the student had excellent scholarly qualities, the professor would have mentioned them. From the fact that the professor did not, you can infer that the student doesn’t have those qualities. That is how pragmatics works.
Grice is famous not just for pointing out that what is implied frequently exceeds what is said, but for providing a theory of how listeners infer what is implied on the basis of what is said. Grice argued that we make inferences about what is implied by assuming that speakers are trying to follow certain informal rules that would make their sentences informative and useful.
One of these rules is the “maxim of quantity”: be as informative as you can, give as much information as needed, and no more. Suppose, for example, you are interested in how many people are in a room. Your friend pokes his head in, and tells you, “There are three people inside.” A few minutes later, you go into the room and are surprised to see dozens of people. When you confront your friend about this, he says, “But I didn’t lie. There are three people in the room. See,” he says, pointing to the nearest cluster of three people, “Now there are more than three people in the room, granted. But I never said that there wasn’t. Why are you mad?” You’re mad because even though your friend said that there were three people in the room, he implied that there were exactly three people in the room. If there were more, then he would have said that there were more. So from the fact that he didn’t say that there were more than three, you reasonably concluded that there were exactly three people in the room.
The maxim of quantity makes trouble for particularist political speech. When a speaker focuses narrowly on the grievances, rights, and interests of one group, their language implies that those grievances, rights, and interests matter, and the interests of others don’t. After all, if everyone’s interests were equally important, they would have said so. In this way, particularist moral language implies only particular moral commitments. This is precisely the same pattern of reasoning that we see in the letter of recommendation and the “three people in the room” case.
Any moral demand that centers the rights and dignity of one group and one group alone will give rise to suspicion about the speaker’s attitude towards other groups. After all, why not mention other groups? Why not phrase your concerns using universalistic moral language? These kinds of thoughts are not the product of paranoia. They’re a common way of parsing language.
Things are not quite so simple, though. For while Grice’s maxim of quantity warrants some measure of suspicion towards those who use particularist moral language, that practice can be defended by appealing to another of Grice’s maxims, the “maxim of relation”: be relevant. If some person or group has been injured, refusing to acknowledge their particular circumstances and instead talking about other people implies that the injury of the particular person or group is not especially relevant. Suppose someone responds to your plea of “I have a problem” with “We all have problems.” If they do this, they haven’t contradicted you, and in a way, they have even affirmed what you just said. But they have also implied that they don’t think that your problem is particularly important. By moving from the particular to the universal, they clearly don’t think that your particular problem is of any special relevance.
So, unfortunately, we find ourselves in a muddle. Those who prefer the use of universalistic moral language worry that those who use particularist moral language are being narrow and tribal in their concerns. And those who prefer the use of particularist moral language worry that those who prefer the use of universalistic moral language are downplaying the seriousness of the burdens that fall disproportionately on particular groups or individuals. These worries arise through pragmatic implication: no one is saying that they’re indifferent to the rights and needs of others, yet that is what is getting implied, on both sides.
Fortunately, there’s a way to avoid this miscommunication. Be particular when talking about problems, but universal when discussing the moral principles that we use to guide solutions.
We have a model for how this works in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While the soaring rhetoric from the end of the speech is the most famous part, the bulk of the speech is a list of particular grievances.
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only.
In passages like this, King is articulating particular grievances suffered by black Americans.
Yet when it comes time to explain why this is wrong, and why America can and should do better, King shifts to universal language. “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” In addition to being a brilliant piece of rhetoric, condemning bigots by an unassailable appeal to universal values, King deftly avoids the alienating pragmatic implications that are all too common in contemporary political debates. By being particular when talking about problems, the maxim of relevance doesn’t trigger any unsavory implications: your problem matters. And by being universal when talking about the moral principle behind solutions, the maxim of quantity doesn’t trigger any unsavory implications either: we must address your problem because everyone’s problems matter.
While neither “black lives matter” nor “all lives matter” is intrinsically offensive, both statements can have offensive implications if used without care. King’s rhetoric reminds us that it is not only possible to avoid antagonistic implications with political language, but that it is a good idea to do so. All too often, we treat it like a victory when we make our political opponents object to our saying something inoffensive, and the easiest way to get someone to do that is to imply something offensive. But these are cheap victories. With a few extreme exceptions, we all share a common concern for our fellow citizens and a willingness to listen to particular grievances and address them when necessary. It’s not hard to communicate that happy reality. It just takes a little tact and awareness.
Matt Lutz is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wuhan University and writes the Substack Humean Being.
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