The New York City Police Department Police Academy graduation ceremony held at Madison Square Garden, Dec. 29, 2015. (Official DHS photo by Jetta Disco)

Refund the Police: How Strategy, Story, and Message Win Narrative Conflict

There have been news reports of President-elect Biden encouraging supporters not to use the slogan “Defund the Police” because, as he put it, “That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police.” Biden has clarified his belief that defunding the police is a bad idea, but he can’t ignore the accusation, nor should he counter it. He needs a narrative strategy that effectively marginalizes the slogan.

There is no such thing as not engaging when weaponized words are being used against you, because in narrative conflict if you don’t win, you lose.

In fact, it is a good tactic to take an opponent’s weakest move (utterance or action) and accentuate and advertise it. That is what is happening with the “defund the police” rhetoric. And this is a good object lesson on how a weaponized narrative conflict is either won or lost.

The threat will not disappear if we simply don’t mention it. That doesn’t mean we should mention it. It means that we need a strategy, a story, and a message, in that order.

Ignoring weaponized words is not a strategy. His opposition is certainly going to use the slogan and then Biden is going to have to respond. Coming up with a defensive response is not a comprehensive strategy. It is no strategy at all. It is only a defensive move. And it is a bad move.

Biden’s message is: “We’re talking about spending money to enable them to do their jobs better, not with more force, with less force and more understanding.” So this is a good start, but it is not an effective message.

Which one of these messages is going to be remembered?

Defund the police.”

or

We’re talking about spending money to enable them to do their jobs better, not with more force, with less force and more understanding.”

Close your eyes and repeat the second message. Can you? You just read it twice. If the audience cannot remember a message, it is ill-conceived and it will be ineffective.

Strategy comes first. Story comes out of the strategy. Messages come out of the story.

Strategy: Not less funding; more funding. Funding is needed for law enforcement trainings in influence, non-kinetic crowd control, and community stability. These efforts should be led by a narrative that explains the strategy to all participants: law enforcement and citizens alike. The trainings and the stories that accompany them should be district-specific.

Story: Stories about what made this new training necessary, why the administration is responding with this strategy, and what impacts are expected as a result of it should flow naturally from the strategy and should consistently map onto the strategy in practice.

Messages: Messages are derived from the story and refer back to it. Think of messages as the tweetable reference to the story. Three words is a good message length. Three words will convey all that is necessary because those words don’t carry all the meaning themselves. They reference the meaning of the story.

Biden’s team would do well to consider the “Defund the Police” camp as their target audience. Target the most extreme not in an effort to silence their voices but in an effort to gain their support.

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Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, affiliate faculty of the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Professor, Global Security, Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and the forthcoming Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes in the role of identity in behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. Maan is also influenced by Jacques Derrida as well as Michel Foucault, as referenced in her article “Post-Colonial Practices and Narrative Nomads: Thinking Sikhism Beyond Metaphysics” (227). After establishing herself through her work on internarrative identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, further examines the role of narrative and power. Her work was also the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of internarrative identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has also been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience. In September of 2015, Maan began work on Narrative Strategies, an online blog dedicated to the application of strategic narrative to international affairs. That project formed the basis for a consultancy group of the same name, uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world. ​ ​

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