Words matter. But more than that, they have matter. When our words become part of the cultural language, they exert a kind of gravity. They express, but also shape, hold, and constrain our attitudes and consciousness.
Consider “law enforcement.” We routinely use these two words to describe the basic function of our police. But at what cost?
The fact that “force” is embedded in the term is no small thing. When the primary objective of peace officers is the forcible administration of our rules, is it really surprising that violence and abuse follow? Our use of “law enforcement” says as much about our fear as it does about the actions of those we hire to do the work.
In this hour when it has become so heartbreakingly clear that we can no longer sit idly by, that we must heal the wounds and right the injustices of systemic racism and cultural violence, we have to do more than just amend laws and change policies, critically important as those are.
In order for us to build the cultural framework for a new cultural consciousness, we have to learn to speak a new language. One step in that direction would be to remove “law enforcement” from our vocabulary. Replace it with something like “community protection.”
With that change of phrase, we begin to change the role and process and expectation of the police. When community is the orienting principle and protection is the collective responsibility, then everyone becomes a critical part of the whole, everyone has a place in the circle, and the law is no longer a weapon or a wall against outliers and outsiders, but a tool of service to sustain the well-being of every individual and the whole.
Of course, just changing words doesn’t magically change behavior. We have to retrain ourselves, our organizations, and our institutions. We have to practice what we speak. Just as we learn to avoid incendiary or offensive terms or names, we have to learn to restructure our common language so that it builds a common purpose.
Some may scoff at the concern over language, disparaging it as mere political correctness. But our language flows from who we are, what we stand in, what we stand for. And with its gravitational pull, it holds our consciousness to the truth—or falsehood—of our words.
Even with a transformed language, part of police protection will still involve stopping criminal behavior. But if it flows from a sense of sustaining the well-being of the community rather than forcibly repelling or controlling lawbreakers, a radical transformation can occur.
We can all begin to speak the same language. We can all become healers.