In the stressed-out, overheated vortex we are experiencing, ideas, opinions, real pain, anguish and meanings are often “lost or misconstrued,” as Paul Simon sang. Incendiary rhetoric serves to inflame thought and decompose understanding. The father and founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, put it thusly: “There is a truth and beauty in rhetoric, but it oftener serves ill turns than good ones.”
One phrase emerging from the maelstrom now is “defund the police.” Some people mean that literally. Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council are pushing to dismantle the city’s police department. Minneapolis, of course, is where George Floyd died under the knee of a policeman, triggering the firestorm of protest from coast to coast. Announcing their intent, the council members used rhetoric that is impressive for its prose, but short on its meaning. By “ending the Minneapolis Police Department” they planned to create “a new transformative model for cultivating safety in our city.”
The council members, to their credit, admit they don’t know how that is possible. “We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like,” they said. But the words “defund” or “dismantle,” when it comes to police, inflame the passions of people on both sides of the equation. What many supporters of defunding police really mean is reforming police. They visualize a realignment of law enforcement funds for such community programs as education, health care, and social services, relieving cops from the often awful responsibilities of resolving family disputes or the time-consuming task of finding shelter for homeless people.
In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, Georgetown Law School professor, Christy Lopez, co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program, says ‘defunding the police is not as scary as it sounds.” Maybe not, but to a lot of people, “defunding the police” sounds very scary. And here is where William Penn’s warning about rhetoric serving “ill turns” comes to the fore. The phrase “defund the police,” has quickly become a political weapon. Democrats, especially those who are up for reelection this year, are looking for cover from the phrase. Joe Biden supports change in policing, but he does not believe police should be defunded, according to his campaign spokesman.
Republicans, meanwhile, are using the phrase to bludgeon Democrats. According to the online news service HuffPost, President Trump’s communications director engaged in some heated rhetoric himself. He told reporters Biden “is complicit” in the super-charged debate. “Biden does not have the strength to stand up to extremists now calling the shots in his party,” he reportedly said, claiming that the former Vice President would “contribute to the chaos” in America.
Some people also see red when they hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” To them, it is rhetoric that assaults white culture. Others, however, argue that perhaps those angry people would understand the phrase better if they added the word “too” at the end of it. Black Lives Matter, Too. The phrase, they say, does not mean that white lives don’t matter. It is a question of equality. We all matter. One protestor heatedly put it this way. “They are lucky,” she said, “that black people are looking for equality and not revenge.”
One more thought about rhetoric and I leave it to President Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big.”