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The Devil’s Dictionary* of Inequality: 3 Reasons Social Equity Supporters Should Ban the Term “Self-
Updated: Feb 5, 2018
“To deflect immediate attacks, we fall in with messaging that unconsciously encodes the vision of the other side.” - Katha Pollitt, New York Times, August 5, 2015 Most of us know that words matter. Consciously or unconsciously, words are windows to what we think and believe, which tribe we align ourselves with, how we feel about other people, and the storyline that helps us make sense of our confusing world. Our words can be friendly and inviting, or neutral, or they can be negative, hurtful and exclusionary.
Most of us recognize and try to avoid words or phrases that are grossly insulting or provocative. Donald Trump is an extraordinary exception to the rule of good taste, offering us a gold mine of unapologetically offensive statements such as his comment about Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever." Or bluntly stating that Mexicans crossing the border are murderers and rapists. As many commentators have pointed out, at least he says openly what others cover up in code words.
But (happily) most of us are not Donald Trump, and the majority of us make an effort to be civil to other people. However, some words can be little stealth bombs, delivering messages we don’t intend to people we aren’t aware of damaging. Think of all the struggles around language in the ‘60s, with the resurgence of feminism. A large number of us gals started objecting to being defined by our marital status --“Miss” or “Mrs.”--while “Mr.” carried none of that baggage. We had to invest a new honorific, the marriage-neutral “Ms.” And some bold leaders questioned why hurricanes were all named after women, with the result that men now share credit for devastating coasts.
More recently, the Center for Community Change produced a thought-provoking research brief “Messaging for Economic Justice.” “Using cognitive linguistic analysis, we looked at underlying assumptions about poverty. From problematic metaphors to reliance on passive voice, much of existing language unintentionally reinforces poverty as beyond our control rather than focusing on how working people produce America’s wealth.”
Political economist Francis Fukuyama has written in several of his incredible books that trust, social connectedness, social cohesion and recognition of everyone’s human dignity is a precondition for broader social and economic equity.
In this light, there is a phrase in common use by social service and training organizations that has nagged me for a long time: “self-sufficiency.” It often appears in the company of other problematic terms like “case management” and “vulnerable populations,” which I won’t get into here. “Economic (or financial) self-sufficiency” pops up all over the place among organizations that are working to reduce poverty. How often? I did a Google search on “Mission statement self-sufficien” and got “about 2,130,000 results.” Here are some characteristic examples:
Mission: To provide solutions to alleviate poverty in Prince George’s County’s diverse communities.Vision: To eliminate poverty and maximize self-sufficiency in Prince George's County.- United Communities Against Poverty, Inc.Project Self-Sufficiency of Sussex County is a non-profit, community-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of low-income families in northwestern New Jersey.
MISSION: Protect the Vulnerable, Promote Strong and Economically Self-Sufficient Families, and Advance Personal and Family Recovery and Resiliency.
-Florida Department of Children and Families
Here’s my question: Is the term “self-sufficiency” working for us or against us in the effort to generate social and economic equality for the greatest number of people? As Ms. Politt put it in her New York Times Op Ed piece I quoted above, I feel “self-sufficiency” falls squarely into the category of “messaging that unconsciously encodes the vision of the other side.”If you govern, manage or work for an organization that is trying to reduce the number of people who live in poverty, and the term “self-sufficiency” pops up in your mission statement, marketing materials or grant proposals, I invite you to think about the following:
Consideration #1: The term “self-sufficiency” is meaningless in the context of economies and individual economic well-being.Self-sufficiency: Able to provide for or support oneself without the help of others. (Collins Dictionary)To whit: no one is financially self-sufficient or economically independent. None of us is “able to provide for or support oneself without the help of others.” Economies are a complex web of commercial, private and public interdependencies. The ability of any of us to make a living, get married, save money, get a job, keep a job, buy a house, or start Ponzi schemes, entails some personal choice; but the choices available to us are determined by complicated policies, cultural norms and interpersonal interactions.
Consideration #2: At an interpersonal level, “self-sufficiency” communicates awfully low expectations of the person on the receiving end, and reinforces their low social status.What does it mean for “self-sufficiency” to be a goal for a fellow human being? It implies there is something wrong with the people in question. That they are childlike, irresponsible, and failing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps like us much more responsible Americans (by implication) do.As Francis Fukuyama so eloquently put it, “Every human being seeks to have his or her dignity recognized (i.e., evaluated at its proper worth) by other human beings. Indeed, this drive is so deep and fundamental that it is one of the chief motors of the entire human historical process.” “Self-sufficiency” language fails the test of helping us recognize people’s human dignity and evaluate them at their proper worth.As a result, when we use words like “self-sufficiency” in this way, we undermine the very thing we are trying to achieve. Words can hurt us, and when we imply people are a cut below us, we have just reinforced that barrier.
Consideration #3: “Self-sufficiency” encodes the “moochers and takers” narrative that many of us equity advocates consider inaccurate, deeply biased and even abhorrent.What is the opposite of “self-sufficiency”?
And not just any dependency, but dependency on those welfare programs (the ones for normal human beings not the ones for corporate “people” and CEOs) that have made Mitt Romney and his friends so unhappy.Sanford Housing Authority’s mission statement helps illuminate this point:Mission Statement for Family Self-Sufficiency“Our mission is to equip low income families who are Section 8 participants with resources that will enable them to reduce their dependency on welfare assistance and Section 8, and to provide each family with the tools they need such as education, job placement, counseling, child care and transportation to succeed and become economically independent.So here’s a suggestion:
As a starter let’s all do a “search and replace” on our mission statements, web sites or grant proposals, replacing “self-sufficiency” with “social and economic mobility.” Then take some time to consider how that changes what we do and how we do it.In the process, you may come up with an even better social equity-promoting term. If so, please share it. I’m all ears.
*Note: Your humble correspondent happens to be the great-great grandniece of Ambrose Bierce, the 19th century satirist, contemporary of Mark Twain, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary. If I were to follow in his footsteps, I might have written:Self-sufficiency: Something that is desirable for other people to achieve.