In law, medicine, and other professions, certain words have a uniform meaning that is not subject to debate. These words are called terms of art. For example, in law, mens rea means intent/decision to do something. Regardless of one’s worldview, mens rea means intent and only intent.
In political discourse there are no terms of art. Words have meaning based on the narrative they are used in.
For example, Black Lives Matter originated as a movement to address police killing of unarmed Black males and the indifference of the criminal justice system to those killings. Thus, Black lives matter when they are killed by the police.
Now here is the point and problem. A person can support the phrase Black Lives Matter and not support the political narratives made by others who assert the same phrase. I have seen Black Lives Matter signs with quotes by Martin Luther King on them. I have also seen the same signs with political quotes asserting silence=violence on them. I have seen Black Lives Matter signs in front of Christian churches, Jewish houses of worship, and Mosques.
Yet, if one looks at the web site of Black Lives Matter, as an organization (political worldview), they assert various values and objectives that no Christian, Jew, or Muslim could support regardless of their political leaning. How is this possible? It’s because Black Lives Matter can stand for, and only stand for, opposition to police abuse of power. It can also stand for a Marxist/socialist, anti-marriage worldview. My point is that in political discourse, Black Lives Matter is not exclusive in meaning.
The same problem exists with the narrative defund the police. On one end of the political spectrum it means the literal disbandment of the police to be replaced by a new police force or something else, whatever that may be. On the other end of the political spectrum it means that multi-billion dollar budgets for the police can sustain the removal of two or three million to fund the informal institutions of social control (church, family, school, and employment) that prevent crime and protect public safety. These institutions, properly funded, can reduce the need for police to deal with people with mental issues or minor disputes between neighbors.
Consider a simple example. In healthy communities, when a neighbor’s door is open or a person has not been heard from by other family members, neighbors investigate the anomalies themselves. If a family member is having an issue, other family members are called. The point is the police are not called. But in communities that, for various reasons, these informal institutions of social control are weakened, the result is the use of the formal institutions of social control (cops, courts, and corrections).
My point is, defunding the police can mean different things to different people in different contexts. Like Black lives Matter, the narrative defund the police is not exclusive in meaning or operation.
I tell my students that in political discourse, political narratives must be defined before serious debate occurs. Intelligent discourse, as supposed to political debate, requires discussion of nuance in meaning. This will provide context for enlightened, educated adult discussion.
Now here is the problem: political debate is not enlightened, educated adult discussion. Political debate is the ground of political battle and it abhors subtleties in definitions. Political battle desires simple slogans attached to passions, not attached to intellectual thought. That is why political consultants make millions of dollars each election cycle by narrowing complex problems into bumper sticker slogans.
Politics is about emotional connection to ideas and narratives, not intellectual connection to ideas. This is a hard truth. But knowing this truth can help in the wading through the political, divisive, and emotional discourse America is now in. Knowing this truth will allow a person to determine if the person she is talking to wants an adult conversation or a childish emotional debate in which nuance is rejected.
Arthur Garrison is an associate professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University and author of the upcoming book, "Chained to the System: The History and Politics of Black Incarceration in America."