What Do You Mean?

One of the most frustrating aspects of the recent civil unrest in America for me, has been trying to figure out what people mean by what they say. Am I at fault for failing to understand the plain meaning of simple words, or are the words themselves intended to obscure the real intentions of the speaker?

I am beginning to suspect it’s the latter. It seems that words are being used in a manner intended to hide, not reveal what the speaker actually means.

Defund the Police

Consider the catchy slogan, “Defund the police.” What does that mean? It sounds like the abolishment of police departments by eliminating their funding. If money for salaries, training, headquarters, equipment and vehicles is withdrawn, there will no longer be any police. Am I wrong for thinking that’s what “defund the police” means? But no, several prominent politicians have assured us that “defund the police” doesn’t mean get rid of the police, even if that’s what it sounds like. It really means reduce some fraction of present funding by shifting it to other purposes such as social work or reduction of poverty.

Well, that’s reassuring. At least we should be able to have an honest conversation about whether police officers could be more effective if they were not expected to deal with social problems. Still, one wonders exactly what that means as well. How can the police know if a call for help involves social problems before they respond to the call? I’m not sure I understand exactly how this is supposed to work.

But be that as it may, no sooner have I adjusted to the idea that “defund the police” simply means cut back on unnecessary distractions and let the police concentrate on more serious matters, but I hear other voices saying the exact opposite. One prominent leader of the Black lives Matter movement recently announced a proposal to eliminate police departments completely by defunding them gradually over five years.

So which is it? Eliminate the police entirely, by eliminating their funding, or reduce their list of responsibilities to make them more efficient? The words of the slogan are simple, but clearly not everyone who uses these words intends the same thing. Now I can’t help wonder if the intended meaning is truly to eliminate the police, but nervous politicians are twisting the plain meaning to deceive voters who do not favor eliminating the police. Let’s be clear here. What do you mean by “defund the police”? We can’t discuss the issue if we don’t know what you mean.

Tear Down the Monuments

Originally, the meaning was to eliminate monuments that glorified racism. To remove statues of Confederate leaders who fought to preserve the institution of slavery. It’s not hard for me to understand why such monuments could be disturbing to black Americans. It must be disconcerting to see daily reminders of a horrible chapter in American history which deeply affected an entire race of people. I think white Americans are slowly beginning to understand the enduring indignity borne by constant reminders of slavery. It can be very demeaning.

Although reasonable arguments can be offered for leaving the monuments alone to bear witness to an historical reality that should not be forgotten, much like museums that document the Jewish holocaust, it is not difficult to understand why some prefer to take them down. But before we begin, we need to answer a couple of questions. Which monuments should be removed, and who gets to decide?

What about monuments to Ulysses Grant, a Union general who fought to end slavery. Why should his statue be destroyed? Or Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who “discovered” the New World? He never set foot on mainland America, but now is being accused of atrocities against Native Americans. George Washington, our first president, and Father of our Country we are told must be removed, as well as Abraham Lincoln, the president who was more responsible than anyone for the elimination of slavery.

It’s beginning to look like “tear down the monuments” doesn’t simply mean stop honoring Confederate generals. It would appear that this means tear down anything and everything related to the founding of our country. Could it be that opposition to historical slavery is a pretense—that the underlying purpose is to eliminate all things American? Is this about racial inequality and social justice or total revolution by riot and anarchy? It is not hard to imagine traces of Marxism at work here, destroying society completely in order to rebuild it into an entirely different order. What do you mean when you cry, “Tear down the Monuments?” I, and many others, would really like to know.

Black Lives Matter

The slogan that dropped America to its knees seems clear. Too many times, American Blacks have witnessed events that indicate their lives are considered less valuable than others, hence, “Black Lives Matter.” The words themselves are plain enough, and who can honorably disagree? Black Americans want society to recognize that their lives are of equal worth to whites. But violence in America does not victimize Blacks alone. Whites, Asians, Latinos, and others are being murdered in the streets of our nation. And don’t forget the police. Too many blue lives have been needlessly sacrificed to lawless violence. But for some, saying “Blue Lives Matter” is anathema. Nor are we are allowed to say, “White Lives Matter,” or “All Lives Matter.” We must only say, “Black Lives Matter,” which causes many to wonder what does this mean?

Does it mean that only Black lives matter? Is this slogan designed to appeal to equal justice, or to promote a different kind of racial superiority? Is this about racial equality or class division based upon skin color? How did the noble dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., that his children be evaluated solely on their behavior and achievements, not upon the color of their skin, get turned upside down to mean that everyone must be divided, classified, and evaluated by the color of their skin? I thought I understood what “Black Lives Matter” means, but now I’m not so sure. Will somebody please explain?

Tolerance and Inclusion

In our fractured society, many voices are clamoring for inclusion. They demand our complete tolerance to say and do whatever they desire without fear of disapproval or exclusion. Society must be inclusive of all opinions. The demand is for total and unquestioned acceptance regardless of how offensive their words and behavior may be to others. May I assume, therefore, that they feel that same way about others? Are they inclusive of me and my opinions? Certainly! As long as I agree with them. If not, they intend to cancel me. Apparently I have no right to an opinion that differs from theirs, but they are allowed unquestioned right to opinions that differ from mine.

So what, exactly, is meant by the words “tolerance and inclusion”? It’s beginning to sound like no one may choose to be intolerant of them, but they are entitled to be intolerant of anyone they choose. Is that what this means? Somebody needs to clarify the definition of “tolerance.” If tolerance is not a two way street, it is intolerance.

Words are important because they communicate ideas. God conveys His thoughts through the words He gave to us in a book which we call the Bible. We cannot know God aright nor understand His will without the use of words. But words can also be used to obscure and mislead. Satan, the ultimate deceiver, uses words to twist truth and disseminate lies. That’s why it is so important that we say what we mean and mean what we say. Truth matters, and therefore words matter. May we be enabled to speak in such a way that no one will wonder, “What does that mean?”

Greg Barkman 2018 bio


G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and nine grandchildren.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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I can help out a little, maybe.

On why lack of clarity is often preferred in general: partly, this is because it's all really about a mood. We've all had the experience of someone coming to us venting about a problem. We listen a while, then start do talk about possible solutions, only to get an increasingly negative response... because it's not about solutions. It's about wanting you to share in the emotions.

Which is not always a bad thing... but we need to not confuse it with solving problems. It probably has no relationship to fixing anything. It does have a relationship to making people feel better... sometimes. And that can be important. Humans feel. Humans hurt. Humans need to heal.

But no, that's not fixing the problem.

On why it's felt that "black lives matter" can't be replaced with "all lives matter," etc. True or false, the narrative is that policing in the US is chock full of racism from top to bottom, like everything else in American culture. So, "black lives matter" is shorthand for "we can't fix this unless we focus on black lives in particular." And so if you come back with "all lives matter," you're sort of saying, "Let's not focus and let's not fix this. Let's keep whiteness dominant." That's sort of the perception there. And I get it. Again, I don't think the rhetoric either way solves problems. Generalizations about systemic racism etc. don't fix anything. Solutions come from looking at places where you can locate and verify a specific problem, what's causing it, then make a specific change.

But again, sometimes humans just need people to feel pain with them. But can the rhetoric be confusing? You bet. It's most confusing when we intermix empathy and emotional support with policy and problem solving... which is kind of the American way. But I don't see the two as having all that much to do with each other.

Maybe it's a matter of different  kinds of problems: you have the "We don't feel cared about and supported and hurt with" problem, and you have the "people being treated unjustly" problem. I don't think we can solve either one if we lump them together like they're the same thing.

Can programs aimed at reducing racism in policing in general help? Maybe some. But mostly you have to find out where the bigotry and discrimination really are and deal with it there. Sometimes it's a few bad cops on a department. Sometimes it's department leadership. Sometimes it's most of a department. But saying "it's everywhere" will fix it nowhere.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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