Fighting Words

Finding a path forward after divisive discourse.
Writer: 
August 8, 2016

I collect words.” That was the first line of my college admissions essay, written before I had any idea where my lists of words would take me. My essay went on to wax poetic about how I jot down each word that piques my interest. “Sometimes,” I explained, “the impulse to ‘collect’ comes from observing a word perfectly suited to its purpose. ‘Meander,’ for instance, seems to stroll casually from its soft, ’m’… A wealth of vowels keeps it from slipping by too quickly.”

Before I knew it, I had meandered all the way to Oxford, England (for the Duke at Oxford summer program) and to the perfect outlet for my passion: the Oxford English Dictionary. Two years later, I returned to the OED, where I spent my days updating and revising definitions, including the half-dozen words between gobble and gobbledygook.

Gobbledygook, it turns out, was coined during World War II by a congressman who was fed up with incomprehensible military jargon. In a brief memo to the Smaller War Plants Corporation titled “Lengthy Memoranda and Gobbledygook Language,” he wrote, “Be short and use Plain English.”

That absurd word perfectly articulates the defeating frustrations that often attend communication failures and misunderstandings. When I returned from Oxford last fall, I found gobbledygook thriving in the media coverage of race relations and law-enforcement issues. The deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Ramarley Graham, and later Eric Garner, had put a national spotlight on long-standing struggles against racial profiling and excessive use of force. Protesters’ cries of “No justice, no peace” were met with law enforcement’s circuitous, defensive language.

For my public policy thesis, I began following the discourse between protesters and police in New York City, where stop-and-frisk policies had driven a wedge between the NYPD and members of the community. Astonishingly, both were driving home the same point; both asserted that justice and peace must go hand in hand. At their core, the two sides seemed to want the same thing: fewer hostile confrontations and less violent crime; justice and peace, peace and justice. Yet they were talking past each other. Their gobbledygook obscured common ground. 

For years, record-breaking crime-reduction statistics had been the NYPD’s ultimate measure of police performance, public safety, and quality of life. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the department applied tactics like stop-and-frisk more and more aggressively—even as crime reductions inevitably slowed. Quota pressure pushed arrests through the roof, and officers made more stops for each marginal improvement. Every week for his twelve years in office, Bloomberg issued a report on crime detailing exactly how many fewer murders there had been that week compared to the same week a year before, highlighting the NYPD’s “record-breaking” crime reduction. Even as protest groups cried out that “Black people continue to die at the hands of police,” the police commissioner was citing statistics and touting New York as “America’s safest big city.”

But safest for whom? Those on the receiving end of the aggressive tactics expressed outrage in completely different terms. Mothers lamented officers “brutalizing and killing unarmed people.” Instead of speaking of “suspects” and “offenders,” protest documents referred to “people” and used their names, highlighting injustices on the individual level. They emphasized solidarity, referring to “our young men and women falling victim to excessive violence at the hands of our police.”   

Each side was reaching for the moral high ground, hoping to place the blame on their opponents. They were so wedded to the language of a zero-sum game they failed to realize that both of their statistics were right and their experiences were equally valid.

The language of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new police training documents and public initiatives seeks to transcend the divisive blame-game in favor of a stronger, more enduring meta-narrative. The thrust of his plan is for police and community members to join forces, to be mutually invested in the communities they inhabit. If they are working together, they can’t attack each other, because an attack on one party is an attack on everyone.

That is the point that remains with me through the seemingly endless racial clashes that have continued to rock the country since I published my thesis in December: that an attack—any attack—is an attack on us all. And we cannot change the actions of others without first changing our own actions, and to that end, our own words. Our words can help us find a path forward, but we must make ourselves understood to be heard.

Forman ’16, an A.B. Duke Scholar from Morristown, New Jersey, majored in public policy with a minor in Asian and Middle Eastern studies. She hopes to return to the OED’s editorial department in the future.