In My Own Words: Slogans and nuance by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Slogans can be great: a few words or a short phrase can give us the essence of a matter. Sometimes, though, they can be counterproductive, especially if you think about them in any depth. After all, what does “Coke: It’s the real thing” mean? We think we know because the ads featuring it leave us feeling upbeat. That’s great if everyone feels the same way. However, that’s not true with all slogans. Sometimes people understand them in very different ways. 

These thoughts came to me after reading the comments former President Barack Obama made about the words “Defund the Police.” He called the phrase a slogan and suggested its use created a backlash that cost Democrats votes in the last election. The outcry from the left made it clear that to them the phrase was not a slogan, but rather represented the loss of human life, particularly people of color who were killed by police violence. I agree that to them the phrase relates directly to violence and the changes needed to end systemic racism. But what they also have to realize is that not everyone hears and understands the term that way because the actual words can mean more than one thing.

Do the words “defund the police” mean closing down police forces across the country with nothing to replace them? While I don’t believe that anyone is actually suggesting that, that is what some people hear because that is what the words say. Instead, supporters of defunding the police are talking about something different: that some of the funds should go for specialists who are better able to handle those suffering from mental illness or developmental disabilities, those whom police are not trained to handle. The money could be used to fund programs that would prevent drug abuse, domestic abuse and child abuse, which could prevent crime before it happens. But when only three words are used to explain those complex ideas, people misunderstand.

I agree with Obama that some Democratic losses were due to the fact that liberal and moderate Democrats were portrayed as dangerous radicals and as anti-police. That’s what occurred in my congressional district. My congressman, whom I think is barely a moderate, got slandered as a radical and someone who wanted to defund the police. That also happened to many others. From what I’ve read, it was members of the working class that voted against those branded this way because this class wants a police force to protect them. They are concerned about family and religion, and worried about having enough money to pay their bills. And they voted based on those concerns.

The irony is some of those concerns – particularly safety and economic security – are shared by those who are behind the campaign known as Defund the Police. They want people of color to be safe walking the streets, driving a car or sitting in their homes. They want to be able feed their families and keep them safe – no matter what shape or form they come in. We are all looking to live good secure lives, but somehow we’ve lost the ability to communicate that to each other. We’ve let words come between us because we no longer understand the nuances behind those words and reject them before we take the time to truly understand what they mean.

We need to be very careful with the words we use. We need to make certain that our message is clear and easy to understand. We must acknowledge the fears, hopes and dreams of those who look different from us while accepting the fact that we are all just humans struggling to survive. Only then will we be able to work together to make the U.S. the nation it could and should be.