As protests over racial inequality and police violence have characterized much of this summer, so have debates about how we talk and write about those issues. On a recent episode of Lexicon Valley, John McWhorter explored two subjects of linguistic inquiry: the slogan “Defund the police,” and the capitalization of Black (and white) people. Here is a transcript of that segment, edited and condensed for clarity.
A lot of protests these days are saying, “Defund the police.” A lot of people don’t like the way defund is being used, because you would think that defund means that you’re supposed to take all money away from the police, and so there won’t be a police force.
However, most people when they say defund mean that the police should get less money, that the police should be responsible for fewer things within a society—less money, not no money. The question you might ask then is: If that’s what people mean, then isn’t it imprecise to say “Defund the police”? Shouldn’t we be using words according to what they really mean?
In this case, I think we need to be a little more subtle about the matter. The prefix de- is not always absolute. It can also be what a linguist might call scalar. Now it’s true that if you dethrone somebody, then you are pulling their butt off of the throne. Down they go, and that’s it. To dethrone means to leave the person not on the throne. It’s either A or B. Or take desegregate. The idea is not to leave a bit of segregation.
But there are other uses of de-. For example, to deescalate. If you think about it, when you say deescalate, what you imagine is pulling the thermometer reading down, maybe by a lot. But when you don’t necessarily mean that you’re extinguishing the whole business. It’s a matter of degree, pulling something closer down to the middle.
Or if you decompress, does that mean that you are going to wind up maximally uncompressed? Probably not. It’s scalar. It’s a continuum.
And so defund can mean that, too. To defund could be taken to mean not to completely deprive somebody or something of funds, but to give less funds to it. To the extent that that may not have been what most of us were thinking, the truth is that we use language creatively all the time, and that is another way of saying language is always changing.
You also have to think about the difference between a slogan and a scientific paper. Defund the police. It at least makes you imagine there being no police, and there is some use in that. Now, I think most of us cringe upon imagining there being no police. That seems too extreme. There are people who would like it that way, but it’s an extreme viewpoint. Nevertheless, to imagine it and then bounce back into some middle ground is not the worst thing in the world. And once again, it’s about slogan versus scientific communication.
So for example, Black Lives Matter. It’s common for some people to say, “No, all lives matter.” They’re missing the point. Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean black lives matter more. It means black lives matter, too. Black lives matter as well. However, the slogan assumes that you know that and assumes that you know that, because what kind of slogan would Black Lives Matter As Well be, or even Black Lives Matter, Too? The “too” kind of hangs. It’s not a slogan. It’s a piece of communication. And the two types overlap considerably, but not completely. It’s assumed that everyone knows that nobody would be so crazy or self-centered as to say that black lives matter more. Why would anybody mean that? Of course it’s black lives matter, too, but you don’t say it. And in the same way, imagine now instead of saying, “Defund the police,” you said, “Less money for the cops.” That’s not a slogan.
There are times when to be perfectly precise is to only talk to yourself. And I think that that’s what’s going on with defund. It’s a different kind of meaning. The language is always changing, and here it’s changing, not in a kind of random way that nobody cares about, such as the word relatable coming to be used, but it’s in a heated context. Nevertheless, this is how language always changes.
The Associated Press and now the New York Times have decided to capitalize Black when referring to people. The decision feels perfectly right to me, because the people we refer to as Black certainly are not black in the sense of the color. So then if we’re talking about black people, then it should be treated as a proper noun. It means that Black is not the color, but a set of people who are thought of as a set for reasons other than what the word actually means in its core definition. You can also say that it refers to a set of historical experiences, not to mention present-day experiences. And so, Black should be capitalized, I think. It will free me up to do something I’ve always felt would be natural. I have spent my life where when I’m writing Black, I think lower case, even though I feel like I’m lower-casing people, lower-casing myself. It should be upper case.
Now, doesn’t that mean that white should be capitalized as well? And yes it does because. It does because white is just as arbitrary as Black when we talk about these things. And then what is a white person? Hispanic people can be white? Israelis are white? What is white? It’s a rather arbitrary concept. Let’s not even get into why whites are called Caucasian.
And so white is a thing. It is a historical set of experiences, and a modern set of experiences, and so it should be capitalized as well.
In an ideal world, we would now be capitalizing B for Black and W for white, but we can’t. Unfortunately we can’t because real life has intervened. White nationalists already capitalize white, the idea being to enshrine whiteness as something separate and in their sense something preferable to a great many other things, including Black.
Now I think most of us who are not white nationalists find that usage rather unsavory. I think that a critical mass of us would rather not do what they do. And so since they use it that way, no, I don’t think we can. It’s inconvenient, because they’ve started to do something, and so now the rest of us can’t do it because they happened to get there first. But it would make me uncomfortable to start capitalizing white. There’s a smell of the Confederate flag about it. So for that reason, I would say no, although deep in my bones I would like it to be tidy. And if the white nationalists cease to exist and 50 years went by, then I’m going to be here saying, OK, it’s time to capitalize white to make everything tidy. But we can’t have tidy now.