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.”
“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.