by James Strauss
“What does it mean,” as opposed to, “What does it say,” or “How is it written?”
The human species has developed an intensely refined form of verbal aural communication, linked with movement, and then refined further by written symbolic interpretation. There are other animal species on the planet known to communicate using rudimentary sound transmission and reception. More than one species echo-locates to communicate using sound pictures. The human ability to build, maintain and then even translate differential forms of the heard and written word is so complex that it has resulted in the development of multiple discreet fields of scientific study and analysis. Suffice it to say that nothing else humans, or any other known species has done in any area, compares to the staggering gains returned from this homologation of what our species calls language. However, inescapably entwined within the core of the very foundational center of this wonderful capacity lies a huge and constantly revealing conundrum.
Given that human language is easily the most powerful social tool every invented or developed, there also exists a constant and obvious co-occurrence of the ability to distort or misled, as well as to accurately communicate. Lies are endemic to the use of language. Denial of the transmission of lies is nearly as pervasive as lying itself. But the knowing transmission of unsupportable, or deeply flawed, information can be directly encountered and refuted. What is much more difficult to deal with socially is the use of language to alter perception and belief, rather than the lying itself, which might otherwise have surfaced to be evaluated and/or revealed.
A great example of changing perceptions, through the use of language, is the use lately of phrases and words found on the rapidly multiplying yard signs seen in and about the southern counties of Wisconsin. A group in Milwaukee, in response to well publicized cries of anger and rage expressed by large groups of the public about police officers throughout the nation killing unarmed black men at much greater rates than others, came together to attempt to counter negative public sentiment about law enforcement. Also, deeply buried inside the foundations of this group was a belief that the ‘black lives matter’ movement was in fact racist, favoring blacks over whites. Yard signs could not state that belief directly because then that message might subject the creators themselves to accusations of racial prejudice.
The tool that somehow came across the groups creative desk is called context. By coming up with a short statement purporting to do nothing other than support police officers, but meaning much much more, this group used context to shift blame for the reality of the message. Running right alongside of the new contextual message was the ability to deny what the message really meant. The writing on the yard sign today reads: “We Back the Badge.” At first coming upon one of these signs an average citizen most probably wonders who does not support the badge?
The message ostensibly appears as a broad support statement about law enforcement in general. It is only in context, explaining why it is seen as necessary and popular to have the sign, that the messages deeper meaning comes through. And that deeper meaning, emerging from the very foundation of racial difference, surfaces because there’s nowhere else for a reader’s mind to go.
Whom are the people who decide to put these new yard signs up, generally without other supporting signage? What citizen decides to place a placard in his or her front yard that, on its surface, seems to support local law enforcement, while most other home owners living nearby have no signs at all?
These signs are not just about law enforcement or badges. These signs are co-opting law enforcement and badges. The real message is contextually delivered and there’s little question about what that meaning is, although there will never be anything but outraged denials coming from the committee or organization that designed and distributes them.
The presidential elections are less than two months away, and the potency of context becomes ever more important as the contest comes down to the wire, and ultimately a final vote. Language context is defined as certain revealed conditions, words or phrases that attempt to allow the real meaning of any given message to be understood. Donald Trump recently discussed fighting ISIS and increasing military strength to do that. One of the ways he says he’d do that is to give the Navy seventy-five more ships. ISIS has no Navy. ISIS exists inside countries that have almost no water.
What is the context that might allow a listener or reader to comprehend this message? The only context that makes any sense is a general one based on the supposition that increasing military strength in any, or every, area will help defeat ISIS. Hillary Clinton said that she would never send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan again. Her context, is as illogical and difficult to understand as Trump’s, and only makes sense if the context is shifted to accommodate ground troop losses and military failures of the past and present. Context can mean everything. Incidentally, neither candidate would admit that the contexts illustrated in this article were valid or true, in any way.
What yard signs should one consider planting in the front yard to express deep-seated beliefs without necessarily alienating the neighbors, but which also have messages that are totally deniable? Context can be argued about forever.
So, in that regard, “We Back the Badge” might actually be a really good choice.