To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Observercast

Confusing Language Causes Consternation

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Brother and sister liberals have decided to make a foolish stand on confusing wording a litmus test, accomplishing only the deflection of attention from the cause they champion.

The “Defund the Police” crowd insists that the English-speaking world ignore centuries of standard usage to realize that when they say “defund,” they really mean reducing law enforcement budgets and re-allocating some of those funds toward crime-prevention efforts such as social programs. [A somewhat bulky slogan, I grant you.]

But we have a long history of understanding that the prefix “de” means an elimination of what follows.

Deboning fish, chicken or ham means that you can chomp down without fear of a sharp, stabbing pain.

Decaffeinated coffee means that you might not be awake until 3:30 in the morning after a late night cuppa joe.

Debugging American embassies keeps Trump’s pal Putin from listening to the sensitive info that Trump hasn’t already supplied first-hand.

Decamp means to break camp and move on down the road. “Time’s up, Trump. Decamp.”

Defusing a situation eliminates peril.

Deicing and defogging windshields removes obstacles to clear visibility.

Demystifying a situation provides another kind of clarity.

Delousing a person gets rids of the little biting beasties.

Yet, recently on The View, Sonny Hostin criticized former President Barack Obama for very sensibly pointing out the dangers of persisting with a “Defund the Police” mantra.

According to Hostin – whose co-hosts also challenged her obstinacy – to adopt a slogan more appropriate to the goal – and infinitely more understandable – would be to allow the movement’s opponents to define them.

Hogwash. It would prevent the movement’s opponents from turning its own deficient wording against it.

Early in Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes lists the first abuse of speech as “when men register their thoughts wrong by the inconstancy of the signification of their words.” He later reiterates that “in the right definition of names lies the first use of speech; … and in the wrong, or no definitions, lies the first abuse; from which proceed all false and senseless tenets.”

For “Defund the Police,” the “inconstancy” consists in using a deliberately skewed, atypical meaning instead of the common, accepted one – choosing a “wrong” definition that creates a false impression on the hearers.

Denatured alcohol is no longer fit to drink.

Deodorizing – as will shortly be necessary at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – gets the stink out of a place.

Derailing a train doesn’t mean sending it down a side track.

Debasing the language causes confusion – in this case unnecessarily [denecessarily?] from a worthy goal of alleviating the circumstances that foment much of our crime.

No one is in favor of more crime – except the current president, who has encouraged unrest in cities, called for white supremacists to stand ready for action and called for an uprising against the government of Michigan.

In fact, when Donald Trump tried to “defund” police forces in Democratic cities he meant cutting off all federal criminal justice money – “de”-funding in traditional English usage – not modifying governmental priorities.

I might suggest a more positive slogan such as “Build Societies; Not Prisons.” But I’m a white-collar white guy who might not be allowed in on the discussion. Purists and true-believers of all stripes are jealous of any authority they can wield.

Precise terminology plagues anyone attempting to put forth new ideas. We only have our current vocabulary, some of whose words have more than a thousand years of baggage, to describe something different. Modifying the old words includes confounding echoes.

Hence, the first philosophers were stuck with theological terms to describe non-religious propositions. Others have coined new terms – with no historical meanings – that require repeated readings for understanding [maybe].

Needless to say, but I’ll say it again, the vast majority of Democrats like our police departments and are thankful for their efforts to keep us safe. Any slogan suggesting the contrary deflects attention from a worthy goal and provides ammunition to our opponents. It is the writer’s, politician’s, polemicist’s, artist’s job to be understood and understandable. Footnotes just get in the way.

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Gary Edmondson
Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democrats. He lives in Duncan, following a sporadic career as a small-town journalist, mostly in Texas, and as an editor of educational audio-visual materials. Some days he's a philosopher/poet, others a poet/philosopher.