Saturday, June 20, 2009

Doggerel #186: "Empowering"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused abused, or just plain meaningless.

I've had a post about some stereotypes I tend to work by sitting in draft format for quite a while. One of those involves the type of "feminist" Oprah appeals to. They often fall into the "no wrong answers" crowd that rails against the high confidence of science. It often creates an atmosphere similar to that I experienced in my early school years, when self-esteem was all. Or rather, the comedic exaggerations of the fad.

There's a difference between empowering a person and giving the illusion of power. In the chaotic world, especially before the various revolutions in science, the illusion of knowledge in the form of superstition gave people the feeling of control over that chaos. False understanding helps coddle the believer's ego, but it does not solve problems.

Giving someone decision-making power without the proper ability to evaluate the choices can hardly be called empowerment. Additionally, many of those in the "no wrong answers" mindset want it both ways: They want to "empower" people to succeed without also empowering them to fail. Critical thinkers who point out logical flaws or misinformation are seen as the enemy for enforcing the harsh standards of meritocracy and pointing out the failures some woo has been empowered into making.

Worse, this "empowerment" is often tied to some traditionally underprivileged group: Instead of judging an issue on its merits, we're expected to defer to them because they belong to that group: We're supposed to treat some wootastic form of "women's intuition" or "eastern wisdom" as superior to scientific data because they say so. Those who wish for equality, and those who treat them fairly are vilified for daring to criticize them. Hypocrisy is quite natural for woos.


Dark Jaguar said...

Whenever I ask what women's intuition "feels like" from those women who claim to have it, it always comes across to me as feeling no different than how a man would describe a "gut feeling". When did that become a gender centric "ability" anyway?

Gut feelings are useful at times. They stem from us noticing little things from our experiences over the years, and these little things can set off alarm bells when we notice them somewhat unconciously later on. It's a good way to tell if someone is perhaps lying for example. However, people put far more than that into it. Instead of it being merely a rule applied unconciously based on past observations, it's some sort of psychic power accessing hidden knowledge (never seems to access hidden lies by the way). As a result, it doesn't ever get questioned. It's all well and good to listen to it sometimes if you're on an elevator with a stranger and you get a "spidey sense" telling you maybe you should get off at the next floor, but remember that you could have easily been totally wrong and it was all in your head.

But back on topic, this sort of "nobody's wrong, every idea is equally valid" thing is far too common in that Oprah crowd, as you said. Part of it probably relates to the ridiculous stuff often tacked onto "humanities" classes that emphasises equality of people and cultures but somehow gets scientific fact mixed up in that, as though how reality works is also completely in flux depending on the person. (Often enough it suggests that considering another culture morally wrong for oppressing women is somehow just as bad as actually oppressing women, as though the ideal worldview is to perpetuate the present state of the world forever until the sun goes red giant and destroys us all).

The whole attitude is what gave the rather confusing ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 such resonance with me. When those two "memetic life forms" go on about how culture stagnates when no one can call anyone else wrong and that the "evolution" of memes had come to a screeching hault when none of them could "die" any more, I couldn't help but agree with them. Then they went on about censoring and rewriting the net to control the flow of information and force an evolution and they lost me again, committing "memocide" and such.

James K said...

I agree, giving someone false information is an act of sabotage, it cannot be empowering, any more than giving someone a dead battery for their pacemaker is.

Dark Jaguar:
"Part of it probably relates to the ridiculous stuff often tacked onto "humanities" classes that emphasises equality of people and cultures but somehow gets scientific fact mixed up in that, as though how reality works is also completely in flux depending on the person."

One of the topics that gets kicked around in some of the higher level economics classes is the notion of the imperial nature of economics. By that I means that economics has been slowly encroaching into the turf of other social sciences.

There are several thoughts as to why this is. One part of it is that like all groups of intellectuals we tend to be deeply convinced of our intellectual superiority, part of it is that many social and political institutions are relevant to economics variables such as growth, innovation an unemployment. I think another part of it is that economics has no contact with post-modernism. If you're going around saying nothing is true and everything is permitted, you can expect someone else to swoop in and poach your turf.

Dunc said...

There is a specific term going around for stuff that's sold as "empowering" (particularly for women) but which actually isn't: "empowerful".