Terministic Screens and the Fight Over What “Defund The Police” Means

Barack Obama recently criticized the “Defund The Police” slogan and was, in turn, criticized himself, drawing further attention to the semantics of the phrase.

Photo by Erick Zajac on Unsplash

Ever since May 25th, 2020, when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, calls to “Defund The Police” have penetrated the public consciousness. The murder of George Floyd sparked protests around the globe, many of which sought to draw attention to the unjust, brutal, and too-often fatal, treatment of black people at the hands of the police. “Black Lives Matter”, both the slogan and the organization, existed prior to the murder of Michael Brown, but reached new levels of awareness after August 9th, 2014. George Floyd’s murder did the same for “Defund The Police.”

But while there have been several attempts around the U.S. to turn those words into action, there has not been significant change, and huge segments of the population still don’t support the idea. That’s in part because policing means one thing to white people, and another thing entirely to black people. But it’s also because not everyone agrees on what “Defund The Police” really entails, something that was brought to further attention earlier this month when former-President Barack Obama criticized “Defund The Police”, referring to it as a “snappy slogan.”

“You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done”, he said, on Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” show. Activists and politicians from the far-left pushed back and criticized Obama, sparking yet another round of debate around what “Defund The Police” really means and whether it’s helping or hurting the cause.

You can decide on your own where you stand on that debate, but what the back-and-forth highlights is the gap between what the language being used means and what people actually want, and the existence of this gap is best explained by a concept that often dictates the (literal) terms of an argument before a word is even uttered: the concept of terministic screens. Coined by literary and rhetoric theorist Kenneth Burke, a terministic screen is “a screen composed of terms through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others.”

The abortion debate is almost always framed as “pro-choice” vs. “pro-life”, but pause and remove the political contexts for a moment and you’ll realize those two things are not truly in opposition. Engage with somebody who identifies as “pro-life” and the debate will likely be centered around the merits of valuing all life. Listen to a woman talk about why they’re “pro-choice”, however, and the word “life” may not even come up. They’re arguing about two tangentially-related, but different, things. The terms you use often dictate the direction of the argument.

“Defund The Police” is no different. It’s not ideologically neutral. It takes a clear position. However, “defund” is somewhat ambiguous. To “defund” something is to stop it from receiving further funds. All funds? Or just part of the funds? What about existing funds? Are we taking those back too? Note that these questions are similar to those surrounding “Defund The Police.” What many people who shout “Defund The Policereally want is to see funding diverted away from police departments and towards social programs. However, that sentiment is often lost because that’s not something that’s inherently obvious when you say “Defund The Police” (to somebody who’s not already immersed in the conversation).

That may be what Obama was trying to get at: shouting “Defund The Police” is directing attention away from the things like increasing funding for social programs.” He was criticizing the wording, not the idea; the linguistics, not the politics. Politically, however, the argument for “Defund The Police” is that activists have tried using less aggressive language and, evidently, it did not work. The idea, then, is that because tapping people on the shoulder isn’t working, it’s time to bring out the bullhorn. “Black Lives Matter” had its detractors, too. (See: “All Lives Matter.”) #MeToo can also be considered a “snappy slogan”, but few would argue that the slogan hurt the movement.

Terministic screens are not inherently bad. When used strategically, they can be very effective. And perhaps “Defund The Police” took that into account. “Dismantle The Police” is similar, but it doesn’t allude to the key component of funding. “Fuck The Police” would be the biggest bullhorn of them all, like it was in the late 80’s, courtesy of N.W.A., but that’s more of a statement than a call for action. “Fund Social Programs”, is arguably not “snappy” enough, and also neglects the rightful anger towards the police.

From this perspective, “Defund The Police” may have actually been the right choice. Not everyone is going to like it, but that can be said about anything, and there is an argument to be made that not everyone should like it. Maybe in a few years it’ll become as accepted as “Black Lives Matter.” In the meantime, more emphasis needs to be placed on aspects of the movement like uplifting social programs and words like “reform”, because it’s hard to make progress in an argument when both sides can’t even agree on the terms.

I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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