Wednesday, November 2, 2011

You've Got Issues

It may feel obvious, but it’s notoriously difficult to pin down the state of the culture.

How do people live their lives? What are their habits, good and bad? What customs and rules do they follow? What principles and precepts guide their behavior?

In principle, culture is not hiding behind a curtain. Since it involves the way people conduct their everyday lives, it is not a mystery.

Magazines and newspapers are always trying to spot cultural trends. They often run stories that supposedly indicate where the culture is going or where it has been.

It’s not wise to take them all at face value, but they often provide an interesting take on the culture.

Today I want to try a different tack: buzzwords.

Everyone uses them. Just about everyone overuses them. You cannot have too many conversations without someone discussing “issues” or “empowerment” or “transparency.”

They function more as passwords than as meaningful expressions. Yet, we use them so much that we end up being oblivious to what they actually mean and what we are saying when we use them.

Recently, Tim Phillips compiled a list of buzzwords. As I was reading his list, I was invisibly nodding in assent, so I concluded that the topic was worth a post.

Some of the buzzwords come to us from the therapy culture. Some come from the business world. Others derive from politics.

The first, and probably the worst, must be “issues.” In the past we all had problems. Now, Phillips explains, we all have issues.

What’s the difference? You can solve problems. In fact, problems are there to be solved.

You cannot really solve issues. They are there to be talked over, around, and through.

When you sit down with your beloved to discuss your issues, you do not expect to be solving any problems. You expect to be airing out grievances. Or better you expect to be called on to shower your grievance-laden significant other with empathy.

“Issues” seems to belong to the culture of venting grievances.

A culture that makes issues a norm is saying that it does not believe in solving problems. This is not a good thing.

Second on the Phillips buzzword list is “passion.” The term is not as ubiquitous as “issues,” but still, Phillips assures us, business leaders are currently obsessed with the notion that everyone must be passionate about something.

One might even say that they are all passionate about passion.

Between us, this is not a good sign. A culture that does not believe in solving problems might well provoke wild passions, but raging against the machine or falling madly in love with an idea will not do anything more than focus your mind on your grievances. 

In the old days, passion was a sign of an excessively emotional, barely rational disposition. Passion makes some sense for adolescents, but it is not adult behavior.

Get consumed by your passion and you will become intemperate. In a culture that values the free and open expression of emotion, passion has become a primary rationale for intemperate behavior.

According to Phillips, people in the business world use the word all the time. But why would anyone want to advertise to the world, or even to a prospective employer, that he passionate. Isn’t he saying that he is willing to throw reason to the winds and make himself a perfect drama queen?

When business is a serious enterprise, its leaders want everyone to get along with each other and to work in teams. If that is your goal, then passion is an impediment. It makes people disorganized and inefficient and it risks turning office life into a soap opera.

For my part I was not aware that the word “role” had become a buzzword, but I will take Phillips at his word on this one. I am more than happy to do so since its overuse signals a form of cultural decline that I associate with the prevalence of therapy.

Phillips explains: “Our parents had jobs or, if they were lucky, careers. We entertain ourselves by claiming we have roles, as if our work is a personal soap opera. During the long boom, the ratio of roles to jobs went from 10:1 to about 4:1. You will not be surprised to learn that, since 2007, this ratio has returned to pre-2001 levels.”

As the old saying goes, all the world is a stage, and all the men and women are following their scripts and playing their roles. Doesn't this tell us why there is so much drama in the workplace these days and why people have so much trouble getting along?

If Phillips is right, the current crisis has caused our work ethic to deteriorate. We are no longer on the job; we are playing roles in a passionate drama.

Next to last on Phillips’ list is the word “transparency.” In the political world, “transparency” has become the cliché du jour.

Properly, the term might refer to windows or to certain articles of clothing. In politics, it does not refer to the glass you can see through, but to a process that had hitherto been kept secret but that is now being revealed to the public.

A culture that values discretion and propriety does not aim for transparency.

If ours does, that can only mean that we no longer trust anyone. Transparency seems designed to compensate for a fundamental lack of trust. This is not something that we should feel good about.

Since no one trusts anyone any more, all backroom discussions, especially those that go into formulating policy or crafting legislation, are supposed to be open to the public.

Unfortunately, when you no longer have secrets, you are going to have much more trouble doing business. Living in a glass house is going to make you more self-conscious. You might even end up being shameless.

Transparency points toward dysfunction.

The last buzzword is “empowerment.” I imagine that we owe this word to contemporary feminism, though its philosophical source probably lies in the philosophy of Nietzsche.

By now, the word has passed beyond the worlds of modern philosophy and contemporary feminists. Marketing mavens use the word all the time. They want to sell empowerment. They want you to believe that this soap or that frock will empower you.

However much it has been overused, the term empowerment still means something. When people are looking for power they are not, presumably, looking for responsibility and authority.

Feminists seem to have decided that women had been disempowered. They launched a movement to gain political and personal power for women, or, more precisely, for themselves. They imagined that empowering women would improve women’s lives.

Making life into a power struggle may have advanced the feminist agenda, but it was a calamity in individual homes and marriages.

Many, if not most, relationships cannot survive being turned into power struggles. Adding the idea of empowerment to a love relationship is like feeding it poison.

People demand power, thus, they demand to be empowered, in order to impose their passionate ideas on others.

Those who seek empowerment are not looking to grow up and to thrive in the world. They are looking to push other people around. Somehow or other they have become convinced that the human race is divided between the pushers and the pushed. The language of empowerment seeks to put you on the side of the pushers, those who exercise power.

In the end it is a profoundly destructive game. In most cases it does not work because one of two partners in the pusher/pushed power struggle decides that he or she does not want to play the game.

At that point you can get your feeling of empowerment from the detergent you choose. You've come a long way....


Anonymous said...

re: "empowerment"...

once again...the language of Marx:


binary thinking.

jealousy and envy.
passion and anger.
perpetual adolescence.

"what was that third thing??"
(humour,from a "Fish called Wanda")


Robert Pearson said...

Some of this vocabulary seems to come from the self-help/success literature, for example Tony Robbins (whose work has helped me at times).

The idea that we have "issues" instead of "problems" is supposed to make the mind think that they are not too big or too negative.

"Passion" seems to come out of the motivational speaker's mouth every few minutes, like a football coach firing up the team. People without passion don't do "great" things. On the other hand, they make fewer disastrous blunders.

"Empowerment" in business practice means making those below top management believe they have power to influence the organization. Then top management then goes ahead and does what needs to be done. The Wikipedia article on empowerment is about 50% gender/woman. You have nailed that one squarely.

What puzzles me about these buzzwords is that they were the "cutting edge" 20-25 years ago. Why they are trendy now is mysterious.

LordSomber said...

"Passion" is amoral. I may be passionate about saving baby seals or passionate about clubbing them.

I am passionate about certain things, but I always clarify: "I am not passionate about widgets per se, but the crafting of quality widgets."