Language changes what we see

Language makes a difference in what we “see” – how we imagine things to be. We don’t think in words; we think in images. “Think of an elephant,” George Lakoff says, and you see an elephant. Use any word, and you don’t see the word, you see the image that the word provokes.

In the current conversation about policing in our communities and whether to “defund the police,” the word itself brings to our minds different images depending on our experience with police officers. If it has been good, it’s a positive word. If it has been a cause of fear, it is a negative word.

Calling them “officers,” for instance, reinforces the idea of hierarchy and domination. Police officers enforce the law. Force and domination are all too often what police bring to their job. And when a person’s experience with force and domination has always caused fear – built up through 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow and white supremacy for Black people – why would anyone expect them to feel positively? Words evoke images. Our imagination needs to be changed by changing the words and language.

What language can we use in place of police officers? Our answers will differ, depending in part on how we view “the police.” We can substitute words like public safety officers or community service personnel, but unless we change the reality of “the police” using force and domination, the language doesn’t change anything.

Many people who advocate for defunding the police are looking to a totally different model for creating safe communities. A safety response team with social workers and people trained in dealing with trauma and mental health concerns, for instance, would be much better than “police officers” responding to many community situations. What do we want people to “see” – to imagine – when we speak of people charged with public safety and community service? Changing the reality, as well as the language, is necessary to make this happen.

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