I used to have a daily calendar with pithy sayings, and one of my favorites, attributed to French moralist Joseph Joubert, read:
Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make more clear.
Over the last several years, we’ve been confronted with a lot of words that reflect our social, political and racial realities. “Me Too.” “Time’s Up.” “I Can’t Breathe.” And now, “Defund the Police.”
As an observer, I see everything through the lens of marketing. And the disciplines of branding and advertising rely almost entirely on one key element to help reach human beings and manage their perceptions of the world: language. Language is how you convince. Language is how you compete. Language is how you win.
Language is what helps companies communicate IDEAS. And more specifically, language, when used correctly, communicates only the ideas you need to convey in order to shift or change perception.
Some context: in the famous cola wars, the soda brands Coke and Pepsi were duking it out for decades to convince people that their brand tasted better than their rival’s brand. The governing idea was that “people drink one soda or another based on the taste.” When Pepsi (and their 1984 ad agency, BBDO) rolled out the new slogan “the choice of a new generation,” it not only caught Coke off guard, it also worked to generate a huge shift in Pepsi’s favor.
It worked because it shifted the conversation away from the idea of the flavor profile of some caramel-colored carbonated sugar water towards the idea that the individual that drank it actually mattered. And the language was very clear that the lines would now be drawn on the basis of age and attitude, (youthfulness in particular,) and not taste.
There are other examples, like Folgers Coffee’s slogan “the best part of wakin’ up is Folgers in your cup.” Sounds like a simple rhyme, right? But what’s actually going on is the brand driving a stronger association between coffee and mornings, which is when most Americans drink their coffee. That’s language working the idea.
Then there was the famous “the other white meat” slogan from the Pork board. As American consumers were worried about heart health, red meat became public health enemy #1. Pork pivoted (never thought I’d write those two words,) and in 1987 hired Bozell, who devised this tricked-up language to associate pork with what consumers deemed healthy: white meat, such as chicken, turkey, and fish. While pork is considered white meat in culinary terms, because it is pale in color both before and after cooking, it is (still) classified as a red meat by the US Department of Agriculture. So you can see how language can be used to blur the lines as much as reveal them.
This is true in branding. It’s also true in revolutions.
The language that has emerged over the past several days and weeks of protesting police misconduct has centered around three impactful words: “Defund the Police.”
Not a great choice of words.
And we need to rethink it, because people can (and will, especially for political gain,) easily misconstrue the WORDS to conjure up alternative ideas that are likely contrary to the intent of the message.
The IDEA of “defund the police,” is rooted in what many see as a history awash in abject racial inequity as it relates to policing. But read carefully: “defund” is neither a social construct, nor a racial one. It is an economic concept. Sure, we can talk about the steady escalation of local taxes and state budgets around policing: more funds for newer technology, vehicles, weapons and tactics that create what looks like a more “militarized” police force, even in Smalltown, America. But that’s not entirely why people are marching.
While a small percentage of people will stand behind the idea, I doubt that most protesters or demonstrating citizens would actually vote to actually defund the actual police with actual economic policy. But because the words themselves are not quite perfect, and so packed with far-reaching implications, it’s hard to have any constructive conversation around them.
What many people are expressing is that they want a hard reset. On race relations. On police use of force, especially against people of color. On political pressures and police union out-clauses that protect the uniform first, and then ask questions of any weight later. And mostly, they want to feel equally protected and equally served by their police. These are not conflicting ideals. These are complex collective emotions and they seem to be shared in this moment by more people than ever.
And yes, there should be a national dialogue around these issues. And there should be some time to reflect on everything that has transpired and brought us to this moment. And maybe there should even be a new approach to policing.
But words matter. And although “defund the police” expresses outrage and communicates its own #timesup with the current state of policing against a disproportionate number of black and brown Americans, it nonetheless sounds inflammatory and abrupt. It’s hard to unite around language that is inherently blurry.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. said “I have a dream,” he chose the words carefully. Even while he mused about people being judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he simultaneously acknowledged that it was, at the time, out of reach of reality. By choosing “dream,” he communicated sheer possibility alongside the harsh reality of long, hard work to come.
And since words matter to me, I’ll offer these as an alternative to “defund the police.”
Reflect. Rethink. Retrain.
In my estimation, this is what demonstrators all around the country are actually clamoring for:
- That we reflect on the choices that we’ve made, and the errors that systemic myopia can yield, from the Central Park Five all the way up to George Floyd. (And that’s just the very recent history.)
- That we rethink what policing actually is, and more importantly, what it isn’t. In many ways, police are in less advantageous positions to protect and serve largely because they’re asked to do too many other things that may fall outside the purview of what “policing” actually is.
- That we retrain police and the entire law enforcement ecosystem for the jobs they’re very good at, and move away from the “broken window” policing strategies of the 1990’s, which are at the heart of some of today’s core issues.
It may also require retraining of our own expectations – and responsibilities – as citizens around policing. As an object study, read what the Camden, NJ police department did, and how local activism and cooperation, along with de-escalation training and requiring officers to intercede if another officer was using inappropriate force, finally and positively changed an entire community.
There may not be perfect language for all of this. But we can start by avoiding imperfect, incendiary and inflammatory language that divides, misleads, and impairs our ability to collaborate on solutions.
Reflect. Rethink. Retrain. It may not be perfect, but it sure does make for a good chant from a crowd marching down Main Street, USA.