Ownership

Here’s a rare and exotic species: a case of two-headed jargon. This one word manages to have a separate, trendy meaning for each side of the American ideological divide. Social activists of the left like to dwell on whether ideas and activities are genuinely “owned” by people who are expected to take part in them.

Phrasemakers on the right have a completely different twist on the same word. For many conservatives, OWNERSHIP is the antidote to “dependency” and “passivity,” and thus an OWNERSHIP SOCIETY is the prescribed antidote to entitlements (what others call “safety nets”). Two meanings, both evasive, bundled into one seemingly ordinary word.

I have no intention of strolling onto the ideological minefield separating the two camps, except to point out that both, in their different ways, have a tendency to use OWNERSHIP to deflect attention away from practicalities and focus it instead on the motivations and thought processes behind whatever is actually going on.

On the right, for example, the shibboleth of OWNERSHIP is supposed to conjure an entire system of values and social-science theory, but in the process it also neatly glosses over some of the more difficult decisions raised by those same values and theories — like what things people ought to own, how much help they should receive in coming up with the purchase price, or even what the “owners” would actually end up with under any given proposal, other than the psychological satisfactions of possession.

There is no more frankness in the way the word is used on the political left, although the context is almost completely different. When community organizers and people interested in social policy talk about OWNERSHIP of an idea or activity, they are usually trying to describe a high degree of personal attachment to whatever is under discussion. “Community organizers,” says a treatise on employment, “need to do more than simply inform residents about the opportunities that are available to them; they need to help residents gain some ownership over the choices these opportunities present.”

Will ownership change the way the residents actually make the choices, or the choices they make? We aren’t told. “The program seeks to promote an ownership of traditional art forms among members of the community,” says a brochure. Assuming that members of the community are not expected to walk off with the paintings, what effect is this ownership supposed to have on them? Again, no clue.

In this sense of the word, the “owners” are supposed to be persuaded that some concept, or endeavor or whatever it is, is the fruit of their own thought or an extension of their personal commitment. That kind of emotional attachment can be valuable, as when the goal is to motivate people to work hard for a cause, or to promote an idea to others. But in those cases, indeed in nearly all cases outside the realm of pure psychology, the “ownership” per se isn’t ultimately all that important.

The word is a stand-in, a kind of understudy, for the real piece of information that most people would want to know straight away: what behavior the supposed “ownership” is meant to enable or motivate, and what rewards it’s supposed to bring. Fixating on OWNERSHIP deprives us of that very information, and thus of a sense of anything getting done.

Activists and public-policy types aren’t the only people who abuse OWNERSHIP in this sense. Management experts and consultants are unwholesomely fond of the word and tend to use it in much the same way as the social reformers. “The customer-service ethic,” a management outfit wrote to one of its clients, “demands total ownership by frontline staff, rather than a top-down approach.” 6 In management circles, it must be said, the shift of focus toward the warm-and-fuzzy “ownership” of things, and away from the practical consequences, may not be altogether benign. One typical result of greater “ownership” of some set of goals is that people are then expected to work harder to accomplish them. It’s understandable that managers might prefer to package this as “ownership” rather than “harder work,” but once the employees figure it out, they are unlikely to take their newfound ownership quite so warmly.

That is equally true of a similar trendy word, INTERNALIZE, which tends to be used in much the same way as the verb TO OWN. At a large New York consulting firm a few years ago, top managers sought to instill the firm’s “core values” in its employees by asking them to come up with events and activities that would help one another “internalize the values.” The values themselves were simple and uncontroversial enough (diligence, respect, teamwork, the usual pieties) but the promotional events and activities quickly became gimmicky — not to mention a burden on people who were already clocking long hours in the office. It wasn’t long before at least one employee dreamt of submitting a resignation memo with the heading, “You can take this job and internalize it.”

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