‘Defund the Police’? Spinners Try Changing the Meaning of the Word

By Hendrik van der Breggen Published on August 24, 2020

These days we often hear and see the slogan “defund the police.” I would like to draw our attention to the word “defund.” And I would encourage the sloganeers to heed the words of the famous swordsman Inigo Montoya (from that wonderful film The Princess Bride): “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

My friend and former colleague Tim Perry, PhD, adds refreshing clarity: “Now that I know that ‘Defund the Police’ means ‘Stop treating every social problem as a police problem,’ I’m all for it. Just don’t understand why the people who pick slogans picked this one. Because what it says is not what they tell me they mean.”

Defund, Defined

To back up Dr. Perry’s observation on “what it says,” consider the following dictionary definitions of “defund”:

  • to withdraw funding from (Merriam Webster)
  • to withdraw financial support from (Dictionary.com)
  • to stop providing the money to pay for something (Cambridge English Dictionary)
  • to remove the funds from (a person, organization, or scheme) (Collins English Dictionary)
  • prevent from continuing to receive funds (Oxford Dictionary)
  • to withdraw financial support from (The Free Dictionary)
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Also, consider why (besides the lexicons’ definitions of “defund”) many English-language users might take “Defund the Police” to mean what the dictionaries say it means, i.e., to stop funding the police:

  • When I derail a train, I get the train off the tracks.
  • When I decaffeinate coffee, I take out the caffeine from the coffee.
  • When I deforest an area of land, I get rid of the trees.
  • When I deactivate something, I make it inactive or ineffective.
  • When I defrost my windshield, I get rid of the frost.
  • When I debone a fish, I remove the bones from the fish.
  • When I delouse my cat, I get rid of its lice.
  • When I decongest my sinuses, I get rid of the congestion.
  • When I dehorn a bull, I remove its horns.
  • When I dehydrate something, I remove the water/hydration from it.

A Day in a City Without Police

Also, consider why reasonable people are legitimately concerned about defunding the police (when the word “defund” is understood in its normal lexical usage as canceling/withdrawing financial support). Consider these observations from Steven Pinker, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University:

When law enforcement vanishes, all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansing, and petty warfare among gangs, warlords and mafias. This was obvious in the remnants of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and parts of Africa in the 1990s, but can also happen in countries with a long tradition of civility.

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home.

By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).

Permit me to close with a heavily embellished paraphrase of our earlier quote from Inigo Montoya: Protesters keep using the slogan “Defund the Police,” but I don’t think the slogan means what many protesters claim it means — and I’m deeply troubled and even suspicious that those protesters continue to use the slogan because there are also many protesters who do think it means what it clearly says it means.

 

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada.

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