November 24, 2020

Defund the Police and How to Help Others Learn What it Means

dangerous police

If we are going to overcome our political divisions and set aside the sort of destructive tribalism that weakens us, we are going to have to start talking to one another. That does not just mean talking to those who share our views; it means reaching outside of our comfort zones and engaging with those we may consider to be our political opponents. Fortunately, this is something many atheists already have lots of experience doing. We are well-positioned to lead by example here if we can just manage to be more reasonable and rediscover the humanism some of us seem to have lost.

I suspect that every atheist has had the experience at least once of interacting with a religious believer and at some point during the interaction realizing that communication has stalled because there was no agreement on basic facts. The most glaring example of this is that atheist and theist are using the same word to mean very different things. You know that point in the conversation where you suddenly realize that the "atheism" against which your conversational partner is arguing is something very different from atheism? That's the sort of thing I'm talking about.

I think something a lot like this has happened with the "defund the police" stuff. Undoubtedly, there are some on the far left for whom "defund the police" really means "abolish the police" completely and do not replace them with anything similar. After all, there are at least a few anarchists on the far left, and having any sort of law enforcement (or laws) seems difficult to reconcile with anarchy. But the critical thing to realize here is that those on the far left who might like to do this are a tiny minority. For most of the rest of us, "defund the police" means something quite different from abolition without replacement.

I'll use myself as an example. I absolutely support the idea of reallocating some of the funds some police departments receive to social services (e.g., mental health professionals who are far better prepared than most police officers to handle mental health crises). I believe that we have been asking our police officers to do far too much and not providing them with nearly enough training to do everything we are asking of them. As for which departments should be targeted for this sort of reallocation, I think that's obvious: focus on the ones where most of the problems have been occurring. This sort of reallocation does not need to be applied inflexibly to every department; it should be tried in the cases where the need appears to be greatest. Moreover, the degree to which these reforms work should be based in science rather than political narrative. That means that researchers capable of doing meaningful program evaluation should be brought in from the beginning to figure out what works and what does not. The components that do not work need to be scraped so that improved methods can be tested.

If I am going to have a meaningful conversation with a conservative who angrily accuses me of wanting to abolish my local police department, I need to be willing to explain that I want nothing of the sort. I might even point out that I find the idea to be moronic. While I cannot control the garbage conservative media is going to spew to fuel division around this issue, I can clearly explain myself and challenge harmful stereotypes of liberals. And if I am going to have a meaningful conversation with a liberal who appears to be promoting a very different meaning of "defund," then I need to be willing to ask what they mean rather than assume that I know. We might be talking about the same thing using different words, or we might be talking about very different things using the same words. I am not going to know this unless I ask.

Most atheists have had a great deal of practice explaining what atheism means (even though it is not the case that all atheists agree on its meaning) and correcting the many misconceptions religious believers seem to have of it. Interacting with others around divisive political subjects is no different. We need to make sure we understand the other party's position instead of attaching the least charitable interpretation to it we can come up with (i.e., principle of charity). And we need to be willing to explain our views to help others understand them accurately. None of this is a guarantee that we are going to change any minds, but that really isn't the point of having these conversations; the point is reducing a tribalism that has become toxic and prevents us from solving the many problems we face. We can do this, but we are going to need to be more willing to do it than we have.