When I was a child experimenting with language, I pushed the limits of what was allowed and what wasn’t. I remember sitting with my little friend Eddie in the receptionist’s office of Victory Baptist Day School and saying, “If you see Kay…” Eddie finished the round adding, “Tell her I love her.”
Sitting at the front desk, Mrs. Perrett called out to us, “All right now. Watch your language.” We giggled silently. We were experimenting with our words and she was telling us that what we were saying was wrong. But it wasn’t wrong, not exactly. It was our claim to power. We had proven that we could work with words as well as anyone. We understood the complex, arcane power of language and were eager to wield it with dazzling ability.
When I was even younger, I once told my mother that I hated her. I remember the power I felt proclaiming that enraged emotion, and then later the guilt I had, the fear that my words might kill her. Thinking back on those days, I see the simple honesty of a child. I knew something, I felt something, and so I said it. What could be wrong with that? Nothing. But as time passed, words became a tangle in my emotional mind, and I often used language to hide mischief, to shame, or to inveigle things I wanted out of others.
Words are so powerful. “I love you,” for instance, even if I don’t. All the yeses that hide a rock-bottom no. Solemn oaths that mean nothing at all. Despite the pitfalls, we are lucky to live in a country that at least professes the belief in freedom of speech. I am a diehard advocate of those last three words. I believe that all Americans have the birthright to say anything they wish. But, along with that almost anarchic independence, I understand that I may be held responsible for my words. If I call somebody a name that tears at them, I might well have to suffer the consequent vituperation. Or a punch in the nose. Or the guilt of having caused pain. If I bear false witness, I may have to answer for my words in the court of public opinion or even in a court of law. I guess what I’m saying is that with a political right like freedom of expression comes both political and social responsibility.
Talking about responsibility in the age of Trump is a delicate thing. Having a president who bullies his enemies, lowers himself to name-calling, a man who would see tens of thousands die needlessly rather than deal in a straightforward manner with the pandemic—that man raises ire on both sides of our divided country. He’s what they call a rabble-rouser, gathering to his side hate groups who would love nothing better than to return to a day when blacks and browns, anyone who is LGBTQUIA+-identified, and women in general would be stripped of their powers and their dignity.
It’s hard not to hate a man like that; and along with hating him, also damning anyone who sees in his executive rule the possibility of a better world—for them. The passion for and against this man is so great that both sides have, to one degree or another, adopted his irresponsible rhetoric. This, I believe, is a monumental mistake.
All Americans have the right to say whatever they believe, but having a right and being right can often be quite different things. If we use language to express not only our beliefs but also hatred of our political opponents, then we run the risk of making enemies rather than being politic and making friends of our sisters and brothers, no matter where they’re from or what they fear. Burning bridges—more than anything, more than the president himself—is our deepest problem.
This is a delicate argument, its meaning elusive and sometimes seemingly contradictory. I mean, if someone across the street is yelling at me, cursing me, and carrying a rifle as he does so, don’t I have the right to come back at that heckler with the same vitriol? Don’t I have the right, maybe even the responsibility, to arm myself and get ready to rumble? Of course I do. And if I don’t care about the union that is my nation, if I don’t believe in the promise of a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all humanity is created equal, well, if I don’t want this polity to survive, it makes sense that I tear down everything with my hatred and my words. I could become that child again, damning his mother because of a momentary but deep sense of being wounded. Who cares if she dies on the way to work?
Who cares? I do. I do because I know that the people in the trenches on the other side of the Trump DMZ have the same problems that I do. Our nation is being sold part and parcel to the controlling funders of our elections—the corporations. Our courts are designed to dole out a better brand of justice to the wealthy. Our schools spread ignorance. And our bank accounts… our bank accounts are nonexistent. Retirement is fast becoming a euphemism for what is impossible. And the future for an ever-growing number of Americans is something to fear.
It doesn’t matter what party or gender or race one belongs to. Our problems are the same. We want to work hard and realize from that labor a modicum of comfort and security. That’s all. And for almost everyone in this nation, even just that scrap of certainty is beyond reach. Does this mean that the so-called Democrats should love the misnamed Republicans? No. There’s no need for us to go to the square dance together—but we should respect each other and express that deference in our language.
How do we manufacture respect when there is so much hatred and fear? This is the question that burns me. How do Black Americans love a nation that has for centuries lorded its so-called whiteness over us? How do women, who have had the vote for barely a century, and who still make lower wages doing the same jobs as their male counterparts, contort their hearts enough to embrace political parties riddled with sexist convictions?
I can give a hundred reasons why the citizens on either side of the line can never show sympathy for one another. But I’m not talking about the voters’ hearts; I’m only talking about their words. I only expect responsibility and restraint when it comes to what we think and how we express those thoughts.
So, in order to explain why I think it is important to achieve this difficult linguistic contortion, I will use one bit of language that I believe encompasses the mistakes we make: “Defund the police.” Those words mean different things to different people. Some say that it means closing down police departments across the country, taking the money they had and investing it in social services that will make our cities and their populations safer. Some think that it means a reimagining of how urban services are offered and laws are enforced. Some believe that it is a form of natural evolution in which social, medical, economic, and mental services begin to have a larger impact on our laws and how those laws are enforced.
There are myriad interpretations of what defunding the police might do to our cities. But I’m pretty sure that in any of these understandings, there are few who want anyone to suffer from violence, predation, or unfair treatment in our courts or our jails, on the street, or while sleeping in our beds.
If this is true, why do we express this cultural evolution of law enforcement with a term that some feel threatened by? There are many urban dwellers who rely on the police to protect and guard over them. If they hear someone digging at the lock on their front door or maybe a gunshot in the alley at the side of the house, these justifiably nervous citizens worry that because certain groups have felt abuse at the hands of the cops, now it will be their turn.
This fear comes from guilt, the media, and, I fear, from our wrongheaded use of language. Why can’t we say, instead of “defund,” reimagine law enforcement so that it better serves and represents our citizens? I believe this is the goal. I also believe that we, those left-leaning advocates of such changes, are so angry with the police and their supporters that we have to add a little dig in how we express our desire for change.
I understand the anger. I feel it too. But our job in the political arena is to make a better world for everyone, even those we disagree with. We should always take the high road when entering the political arena, because our laws should be equally applied to everyone and everything we do. If I’m marching down Fifth Avenue yelling “Black Lives Matter!” and someone accosts me saying that white lives matter too, I can say, “Of course they do. It’s just that they’re not getting shot down in the street today.” We can disagree where we do, and also we can, and should, agree on common ground.
Our job during this election is nothing less than healing the nation and the world. We don’t have time for petty hissy fits. Yes, Donald Trump has set a bad example for all Americans. Yes, he has lowered our credibility in the world and also in our own eyes. But getting down on his level will not bring our goals any closer. We have the freedom to say whatever we want, but we have the responsibility to consider every word before its utterance.
The root of the word “reparations” is to repair. After four years of Trump, we need to perform reparations on our language and how it works in our mouths, in our minds, and upon the hearts of others. We need to become better citizens and better people who stand up for what we believe and at the same time do, and say, what we believe.