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Here is an example of that most pernicious of all forms of jargon: the ideological shibboleth. To establish one’s bona fides as a person concerned about the poor, the disenfranchised, or even ordinary people in general, it is essential in every setting to use EMPOWERMENT – as early (and, in some circles, as often) as possible.

The coiners of EMPOWERMENT invested it with only the broadest meaning, perhaps to make it usable in nearly every context-or anyway, that has been the effect. Foundations now must be careful to empower grantees, communities, individual residents of those communities, voluntary and civic associations, the poor, those who help the poor, and even those who do not help the poor, but would if they were empowered. Scarcely a grant is made anymore without someone or something being solemnly empowered, normally with a timely infusion of money.

The word is a synonym, says the American Heritage Dictionary, for “authorize,” but you wouldn’t guess it from the way EMPOWER is used. People are not “authorized” by community development organizations, but they are apparently “empowered” in the hundreds of thousands. No one is “authorized” by public opinion polls, the Internet, charter schools, community policing, a Patient’s Bill of Rights, civilian review boards, tax cuts, after-school programs, competition in the telecommunications industry, or community colleges. Yet every one of these things, and many more besides, has been described in recent public-policy or foundation writing as “empowering” people.

This EMPOWER-surge makes at least one thing clear: The American Heritage Dictionary has it wrong. In the ideological camps where EMPOWER is a ritual incantation, the word doesn’t mean “authorize,” it means “give people some ability to influence something they cannot already influence, or do something they cannot already do.” But that definition is so broad that it can apply to almost anything that is not an absolute impediment. (One might argue, just to be churlish, that even an impediment empowers people to impede things.)

Try this exercise, which we might call an EMPOWER-outage: Find five or six instances of EMPOWER among recent memos and papers, and mentally blot them out. Then re-read the paper, with the EMPOWER switched off. Most times, the meaning won’t have changed a whit. But the paper may grow shorter.


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