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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Nasty Eleven-Letter-Word

I was talking with a couple of friends this weekend and someone dropped the word "empowerment". Which got me thinking. It's not really a word I am particularly fond of but I hadn't taken the time to work through the reasons for my dislike. So here is what I came up with.

We usually hear the word "empowerment" in one of two contexts. Either someone is talking about one social group (race, gender, orientation, political party, religion etc...) needing to be empowered by society. Or someone is talking about a specific individual "finding empowerment". Of these two usages I prefer the second one but overall I think the word ought to be dropped from the language entirely. Before I go into the two usages though, let me talk about the word itself.

"Empowerment" is a noun, I suppose. It's a sort of action that is objectifiable. But it is also intrinsically passive. One receives empowerment, if you get power for yourself you have not "been empowered" you have simply "gotten power". Of course there are a few pop-psychology books which talk about self-empowerment, but even there, a single entity is acting as both the subject and object of the phrase; thus when I engage in self-empowerment, I receive power I got for myself. So "empowerment" is not a word which can (or at least ought to) be used in the context of one increasing their own power, it is a passive word. 
In the first usage (empowering a social group) I don't think the word can be used without contradicting the intentions of the person using it. Specifically, if I said that some group needs to be empowered that can only be because they currently lack power. It is possible that I would make the claim in a sort of off handed way claiming that some group or other really ought to have power, but that is unusual. Usually when the word gets used someone is talking more about taking power from another group (usually a majority of some sort) and giving it to another group. A sort of redistribution of power. Which is condescending. Really condescending. If I were to walk up to you and say "You know what you need? You need power, so lets take some from that guy over there and get it for you." You cannot really talk about empowering anyone without suggesting that a) they don't have enough power and b) they can't get it for themselves; someone else has to get it for them.
Not only is that insultingly condescending in a social context but it lacks a certain amount of historical viability. At the present I can't think of a single social group which currently has power which they did not either inherit, get from God, or get for themselves. People just don't do third party swaps on power.
In the second usage (empowering an individual) I have less of an issue with the use of the word but only because people almost never mean what it actually means when they use it. Properly understood, the phrase "You need empowerment." means something like "You don't have enough power, and you can't get it yourself so you need to find someone to get it for you". But in actual usage it generally just means "you need more power." Which may or may not be true in a given situation, but either way it is a case of misusing the language and potentially conveying an assumed superiority.
Of course there are times when it is quite appropriate to talk of empowering someone. Deputies are empowered, they don't have police power, they can't get it for themselves, it has to be given to them. Children are occasionally empowered by their parents who quite properly have more natural power (moral, physical and legal) and can, on occasion lend or give it to them. And God is omnipotent. So ultimately all power in existence is a result of divine empowerment, quite properly so.
The problem is when groups of naturally equal power (especially legal or moral power) start to talk about empowering one another. When this happens the relationship between the groups must be artificial and strained from the outset. One is the group with the power and however they feel about that (guilty, proud, justified, unjustified) they will see themselves as different both in capacity and quality from the other group (remember "empowerment" only happens when the receiver can't get the power for themselves).
Or am I wrong about this? These are just my reflections on why I dislike the word so much (my other thought was that I don't like it simply because power is almost always the wrong thing to focus on in any relationship) they may be way off base. Please let me know either way.


  1. Crap, so I just wrote a really long, much more thought out comment, but lost it, so instead, here are a few quick, less put together thoughts...

    Hmmmm, a la Foucault, I think it is damn near impossible to avoid power in relationships. I agree that it should not be the focus, but I think ignoring its operations might be something that avoids reality and thus accountability.

    Your criticisms of the nature of the term itself is interesting... I am more concerned with the realities of power in relationships, and would love to hear more of your thoughts on that front, but agree with some of your critiques on a different account--insofar that the term assumes a sort of particular balance of power and thus negates what it attempts to do. Though, I do like, to some degree, what it insinuates. One of the community organizing groups I've worked with (Industrial Areas Foundation) has as its organizing principle, its "iron rule" so to speak, "Never do for others what they can do for themselves." This is what I think of when I think of empowerment....

  2. I see and agree with the preception of condescension that goes along with the notion that you are empowering someone, but I am not sure if it's avoidable or intentional and to some extant a "should happen" kind of thing (the empowerment that is). At the risk of sounding racist and condescending myself, your perspective is one of someone whose culture has at least in recent history has had the power. You are white middle class (or at least you grew up that way).

    For example, Equal Opportunity Employment blah blah, though probably not as needed at it once was still has its role to play. This law "empowered" the African-American and other previously "unempowered" (which included women) to find opportunities that they were otherwise denied. Within the last month or so, there was a story of an African-American who was denied promotions within a certain government agency. At first it seemed to him that it was normal denials, until it seemed that he was being passed for promotions an inordinate number of times by even less qualified white candidates. (This happened over several years, so it was not a knee-jerk reaction and an immediate emotional reaction to being passed up). He finally pointed out the discrepancy to the appropriate agency and the agency agreed with him. Although the man had won the case, he did not gloat and he seemed even saddened by the fact that he had to resort to such measures.

    One of the things that I think America can be proud of is the fact that we have measures in place to empower the unempowered. Although I suspect these measures can and has been abused, one could blame the fact that the abuses occurred prior to the need for the measures. Sorry if that didn't make any sense. It made sense to me at one point, but I'm not even sure what my point was.

    Another usage of the word "empower" is frequently used when we say that we are encouraging someone to behave poorly. It is a typical argument against legalizing marijuana (sp?) or handing out condoms to adolescents.

    Meh, it's just a word, get over it, heh. You are "empowering" the word with too much "empowerment."

    Like the first commenter I had organized thoughts at the beginning, but they have all escaped me now. But the first commenter did a much better job at keeping it together than I did, heh.

    By the way, I enjoy reading your thoughts, but must admit that I probably read them in a predatory manner to simply "disagree" with them. :)

  3. Let me make my surrender official. Y'all have convinced me, there are legitimate uses for the word. I still think that it is sometimes used in a self-defeating way but there certainly are cases where the concept is appropriate. Thanks for all of the feedback here and on FB.