What would Sun Tzu have to say about the call to defund the police?

“Defund the Police”: What would Tzu do?

The call to “defund the police” — popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement — is taking hold in some places in the US but it’s an uphill battle in many others. And I’ve noticed that it seems to be a battle that many/most Liberals who support the idea don’t/can’t seem to understand or grasp why it is so difficult.

The Art of War’s chapter on Terrain speaks of going, “only halfway towards victory,” because of three different scenarios having to do with ignorance of the various elements of a battle. These areas are (3) your opponent’s openness to attack, (2) your own condition to attack, and (1) the condition of the ground upon which the battle will take place.

“Defund the police,” is a catchy phrase to chant in front of city hall, but until someone is curious enough to ask what “defund the police,” actually means, it sounds like idealistic naivete. Not something to take seriously. Why would anyone want to defund the organizations charged with enforcing laws and keeping social order? How would we fight crime? Who would you call if someone were breaking into your house? Where would we get our feeling of security?

Answering these questions would be relatively simple over a pint. But in the age of clickbait and social media algorithms that shorten our attention spans, and stifle our curiosity by siloing our interests and worldviews — it’s so much easier and more emotionally satisfying to simply assume the answers and dismiss the rebuttal. And even if someone knows what “defund the police” means, it’s easier and more emotionally satisfying to assume that everyone has seen what you’ve seen and dismiss them as either stupid or evil for not understanding or disagreeing with your opinions on the idea, than it is to explain them.

In other words, the ground is slippery, nasty, and potentially toxic to boot. Considering this is an important aspect of the battle, and if you’re not prepared for it or loose sight of it, nothing you do will grant you the victory that you seak.

One of the most popular explanations for what “defund the police” means, can also highlights a potentially deeper problem with it. An abbreviated example comes from Rashawn Ray at Brookings:

“Defund the police,” means reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality. That’s it. It’s that simple.”

On its face, this simplified explanation makes sense, but in reality this idea’s “simplicity” is a little like the simplicity of sending people to the Moon: You just put people in a rocket ship and off they go, right? But instead of a bunch of scientists, it’s politicians. Instead of a rocket, you’re (re)launching thousands of new jobs across dozens of (expanded) organizations. Instead of fighting or using gravity, you’re working with people’s sense of safety, fairness, and justice. And instead of the Moon, you’re trying to land on “public opinion” — a moving target across multiple elections that is much MUCH less predictable than a celestial body.

This may seem like an obvious or even condescending thing to say, but “defunding the police,” is quite a bit more complicated than changing how you spend your paycheck next month. And if you’re not ready (intellectually and emotionally) for more of a conversation than a statement that ends with, “it’s that simple,” or to acknowledge the difficulties around the idea (like Rashawn Ray was in the rest of his article), then you’re probably not ready to advocate for it beyond chanting a slogan at a rally. So back away from the keyboard.

There are two general assumptions about humans that have formed part of the foundation of our laws and societal institutions. (1) That every human is wholly responsible for every circumstance they find themselves in and therefore every choice they make (AKA free will), and (2) we’re all fundamentally selfish/bad/evil and therefore inherently destructive to society and eachother. As such we’ve structured our societal institutions to punish people who aren’t able to overcome their inherent destructive capacity and continually deter people who have overcome it using law enforcement and the justice system.

When we follow up these ideas with the use of GDP as the only/primary thermometer by which our institutions measure the well-being of the nation, it only makes sense to do things like defund schools in poorer districts because it would be a waste of resources to try fixing a situation that people have chosen to live in and militarize the police as a bulwark against the growing hordes of people who aren’t able to overcome their true/evil nature and their desire to destroy society.

The idea of (simply) defunding the police goes against the foundation of how many people view human nature. And, it doesn’t matter that these two assumptions about humans are false, because it’s what many people believe about each other and even about themselves. It’s as fundamental to their worldview as any closely held religious precept, and a simple chant and a meme going against that is about as productive as pushing against a locked door. And if the minds of the people you have to change are not open to being “attacked” — again — you’ll only ever go halfway towards victory.

Bottom line? If you’re advocating/shouting that we need to “defund the police” and feel as though you’re not being taken seriously, there’s probably a good reason. And that’s not to say that you should stop advocating for it or that the ideas behind “defund the police” aren’t what this nation needs. It’s a plea to become more progressive: To step back from partizanship and (political) fundamentalism, and to recognize the common ground and nuance surrounding the issue so that the battle can be won with as little fighting and as little loss of life as possible.

“…to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Sun Tzu

Creative analysis of and solutions to interesting issues.

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