Dear progressives: Words matter, and listening matters

Do you want to feel better about yourself, or do you want to change the world?

They’re not mutually exclusive, but focusing on the first at the expense of the second is one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in today.

Americans love “progressive” policy — background checks on gun sales, a path to citizenship for immigrants, keeping the U.S. in the Paris climate agreement, etc. They hate being belittled. They hate being condescended to.

And like the people who take Trump’s suggestions to hurt journalists or guzzle hydroxychloroquine literally, a lot of people are going to take slogans such as “defund the police” literally.

Rule of thumb: If you have to write several thinkpieces explaining your slogan, your slogan sucks.

  • Law professor Christy Lopez in The Washington Post: “Be not afraid. ‘Defunding the police’ is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need.”
  • Ray Levy-Uyeda at Mic: “Defunding the police is a more holistic demand to reduce police department budgets to $0 for the staunchest activists, and for others a call to simply reallocate some of the money dedicated to funding law enforcement to other community resources instead.”
  • Dionne Searcey at The New York Times: “Leaders in different cities have advocated various specific plans, but generally speaking, the calls aim to reimagine public safety tactics in ways that are different from traditional police forces.”

Granted, any word or slogan can be twisted. When you think “anti-fascist,” do you think of folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar? Or do you think of overblown fears of white “antifa” dudes looting in bandannas to prove their street cred?

And yes, it’s understandable that we’d like to see the Overton window — the gamut of things that can be discussed without being immediately dismissed — pulled back after a few years of seeing it yanked violently toward racism and ignorance.

The media are absolutely complicit in the Overton window’s rightward tilt by allowing “both sides” to be defined as one extreme vs. another, or one extreme vs. the supposed status quo. Instead of having climate change “debates” between one people who accepts the facts and one who doesn’t, the debate should be between “hey, here’s how we can adapt” and “we’re toast and should pack for Mars.” Debates over stopping police racism should be between those seeking mild reforms and those seeking comprehensive overhauls, not between someone still drunk off looted liquor and someone who wants the police to roll a tank through Lafayette Square.

If we pay more attention to potential policies rather than professional trouble-makers (looters, yes, but also the Fox News prime-time lineup), we could change the conversation.

We could debate all the ideas mentioned in the pieces above, some of which are already in action. Divert some 911 calls to mental-health professionals rather than police. Cut away the militarization that has made local police much more dangerous.

Another idea implied but not directly stated in the harrowing piece “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop“: Hold police accountable, in part by stopping retaliation against whistle-blowers:

Every quarter, we were to write anonymous evaluations of our squadmates. I wrote scathing accounts of their behavior, thinking I was helping keep bad apples out of law enforcement and believing I would be protected. Instead, the academy staff read my complaints to them out loud and outed me to them and never punished them, causing me to get harassed for the rest of my academy class. That’s how I learned that even police leadership hates rats. That’s why no one is “changing things from the inside.” They can’t, the structure won’t allow it.

Seems like something we should address.

It’s condescending to think people can’t see nuance. You don’t need a slogan to tell people — as Lopez, the anonymous ex-cop above and John Oliver have — that police are asked to fill too many roles, especially that of an ad hoc counselor or therapist.

It’s offensive to assume someone who doesn’t immediately jump on your bandwagon is less empathetic than you are. I’ve been dealing with this on Facebook not only in the discussions over the protests and COVID-19 but also in a group I moderate that has taken discussions on development density into an assumption that anyone who’s concerned about traffic and overcrowding is really just in it for the racism.

A common thread in both of those: People are refusing to listen. They’re good at telling other people to listen but not so good at doing it themselves.

A discussion about police reform should include people — and you’ll find a lot of people of color — who fear for their own safety. A discussion about agriculture should include farmers. A discussion about closing coal mines should include people whose livelihoods will be displaced. (An honest discussion — not Trump’s insinuation that people in West Virginia can’t do anything but work in a coal mine, so we’d better keep them all open.)

My experience is that once you talk and listen, you make progress. I say that as someone who grew up the grandson of a segregationist. I had stereotypes of gay people, Muslims and “Yankees” that faded only as I grew up and met gay people, Muslims and “Yankees.” I only started to support gay marriage maybe 15 years ago, and I assure you no one changed my mind on the subject by telling me what a bigot I was.

The best slogan may or may not have originated with Native Americans. You may call it “cultural appropriation” if you’re feeling cynical or “learning from indigenous peoples” if you’re feeling generous. It hits directly at the notion of “privilege,” either reinforcing it (by making people consider their own privilege as well as their political opponents) or undermining it (by restating the concept in way less likely to put people on the defensive):

Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes

Change “man” to “person” and “his” to “their,” and you won’t find a better guideline for any political thought.

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