Around

Submitted by Albert Ruesga, Vice President, Programs and Communications, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation

Albert writes:
Around…as in “Native Nonprofitese speakers will protest at a rally convened around issues relating to grassroots initiatives to impact access to resources for linguistically isolated community stakeholders.” Nobody wants to address this or that issue. Everybody wants to meet around them. Sounds like we’re taking evasive action.

Tony Proscio responds:
In my days as a newspaper reporter and editor, I often had to write about events taking place in distant time zones. Going to press at 11 p.m. Eastern Time, I would sometimes file pieces commenting on events that were still unfolding elsewhere.

When I struggled to write about some situation that might change radically before my words hit the streets, my editor would sometimes say to me, “you’d better write around that.” His meaning — which was deliberately ambiguous, so as to preserve our patina of professional dignity — was, “you’ll have to fudge it.” I would end up using evasive weasel-words whose vagueness left room for overnight developments. I’m not saying I’m proud of this, of course — but consider the era. This was before the Internet gave reporters the opportunity to update their work every 15 minutes.

Now, flash forward a decade or two. Just a few weeks ago, I received a memorandum of understanding from a new client specifying that I would write a report “around” such-and-such an issue. (I’m protecting my client’s identity because of my natural generosity of spirit, and because I haven’t been paid yet.) I had to read the memo twice: I was being hired not to write about the issue, but to write around it? I guess Id’ better haul out the International Thesaurus of Evasions and Weasel-words. This one’s going to be a doozy.

Now, the word “around” is hardly new and certainly not jargon. There’s nothing technical or abstract about its use in the context of research and public policy, it’s just trendy and goofy. It has a whiff of the New Age to it — a desire to pay homage to the cloud of associated ideas and implications that surround any issue, and an implied willingness to wander like a cowled mystic beyond the boundaries of organized thought. Or something like that. The point seems to be that only dowdy relics like me, slaves to 20th-century linear reasoning, would be content merely to discuss an issue. Enlightened thinkers of the new millennium, with their unbounded minds multitasking their way through all the penumbras and emanations of life, think around the issues, thus advancing the frontiers of discovery.

But before I ridicule this line of thought too much, a cautionary word is in order. “Penumbras and emanations” is not a phrase I made up, nor is it the work of New-Agey types in the nonprofit world. It is the formula on which Justice William O. Douglas based his theory of a constitutional right to privacy, in his majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut. Sometimes, finding the truth really is a matter of exploring the uncertain terrain around a set of fixed ideas. The desire to think around things, as well as through them, really does advance the frontiers of discovery and invention, as it did for Justice Douglas. As with so much trendy rhetoric in the nonprofit world, the underlying desire behind the words may be fitting and sound. But at some point, the words themselves have a tendency to slip their moorings. When that happens, the result sooner or later is neither discovery nor invention, just silliness.

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