Sunday, February 26, 2006

Today's blog post is brought to you by the letter E

There's a language among activists, where certain words become short-cuts and over used (I'll freely admit that inappropriate is my own personal short-cut for things that I don't like but I'm too lazy to articulate why). Recently I've begun campaigns against some of these words, because I found them annoying an imprecise. The first time was using 'community' when it makes a group of people sound a hell of a lot more homogenous than they actually are, another time it was 'healthy' when used to refer to food (I'm sure that'll surprise exactly no regular readers).

I can't remember if I ever went on a month long campaign against 'empower', but I should have. And Graham Watson's comment on my previous post gives me a perfect example of why:

There seems to be a focus on power in the post.

Surely empowerment, the freedom for individuals to express themselves as they see fit is more virtuous?
So here are the reasons I hate the word 'empowerment'.

1. It sounds, really, really smurfy, even if I was OK with the concept I'd want a word that sounded less like a bunch of hippies sitting round a meadows humming to express it.

2. I think the very word form undercuts the supposed meaning. I empower you; subject verb object. Surely the gaining of power can't be something that is done to you.

3. 'Empower' is a really imprecise word - when you say something empowered you, you're not describing the effect it had on you specifically. It can mean it articulated something you were feeling, it can mean you felt stronger, it can mean it made you feel less alone. I think it's generally a good idea to try and describe things more specifically.

4. People often talk about a particular situation feeling 'empowering', as if that's the only way to evaluate the situation. While I think the way people feel is important, it's no the only thing, we also have to example whether things make us strong or powerful, or just make us feel that way.

5. I think the whole use of 'empowerment' is individualistic. An individual is 'empowered' or 'disempowered' and that's what matters. It's very easy to ignore the fact that what gives us power and strength is each other.

I don't actually have the same criticism of 'disempowering'. I think a lot of people use 'disempowering' the same way I use 'inappropriate' - 'this bothers me, but I don't know why'. I think that's fine, as long as 'disempowering' is not the end of the analysis. I think 'empowering' is more dangerous, because it's much worse to have inaccuate language about what you're aiming towards, than inaccurate languageof what's bugging you.


  1. Anonymous1:49 am

    Thank you. I have never been able to articulate exactly why I dislike 'empowerment' so much, but this post identified everything that bothers me about it, and pointed out a couple issues that I hadn't thought of. I'll have a much easier time explaining why I'm resistant to 'empowerment' now.

  2. Anonymous2:06 am

    Interesting, the word doesn't have that effect on me at all, its all positive.

    Your well articulated thoughts open a window through to alternatives. Thank you.

  3. Anonymous2:10 pm

    Yes 'empowerment' sucks.
    Union bureaucrats with leftist pretensions love using it, although they are habitually controlling of their members and terrified of the slightest unscheduelled initiative.
    You can't kindly hand out bits of empowerment at some crappy CTU workshop. Power is taken by direct actions, taken away from those who resist losing any of it.