Enablement — a new pondian difference?
I’ve just discovered a new (to me) and hitherto entirely unsuspected difference in meaning of a word on the east and west sides of the herring pond that geographers call the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in North America “enablement” means something completely different from what it means in South Africa, and to all accounts, the UK. I’m not sure about other parts of the English-speaking world.
Someone posted this chart of virtues on Facebook:
Evan Kirshenbaum, an American and a respected language fundi, responded, “The notion is being so uncritical that you wind up helping somebody’s self-destructive behavior.”
That seemed weird.
It is almost completely opposite to the way I have usually heard the world used. To me, and I’m sure to most South Africans, “enablement” means helping someone to do something for themselves rather than always relying on others to do it for them.
The classic example is teaching a child to tie its own shoe laces.
Tying your own shoe laces is self-destructive behaviour?
The mind boggles.
I’ve mainly heard the term used in the context of community development and political activism.
It meant enabling people to do things for themselves rather than waiting for the government to do things for them.
One of the classic examples was in a handbook for community development compiled by an American friend.
Back in the day (ie about 45 years ago) a deputation from a small rural community in Zululand went see the local magistrate to complain that they had no drinking water.
Magistrate: Why don’t you have water? The government just built a new dam.
Community leaders: “Yes, but we cannot drink the water in the dam.”
M: Why can’t you drink the water?
CL: There is a dead dog in it.
M: Why don’t you just remove the dog?
CL: It is the government’s dam. The government must remove the dog.
Now there are various sub-texts about power relations in that story that are explored in the manual of community development. I am using the story here simply to illustrate the kind of attitude of dependency that enablement is intended to overcome, and it is the dependency, rather than the enablement, that is seen as self-destructive.
So how did a word get transformed to mean almost its opposite in the space of 45 years?
Update 26 January 2016
I have done some more historical research, and established that the difference is not pondian, in the sense that it has different meanings on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, since both meanings originated in the USA.
The terms enabler and enabling (in the sense I have described) were introduced to South Africa in the mid-1960s by an American Episcopalian priest, Don Griswold, and the circumstances of the introduction were as follows.
The Anglican Bishop of Zululand, Tom Savage, wanted lay people to be more active in the church, and tried by various means to promote “the ministry of the laity”. At some point, presumably on a visit to the USA, he had been introduced to T-Groups, also referred to as Sensitivity Training, Encounter Groups or Group Dynamics. This method of experience-based education in group processes was endorsed by the US psychologist Carl Rogers.
Bishop Savage invited Don Griswold to come to South Africa, and he was the Rector of the parish of Holy Cross in Empangeni, and ran T-Group training at the diocesan conference centre at KwaNzimela. Bishop Savage encouraged all the clergy to take part in this training, and most of the groups were mixed clergy and laity, black and white, male and female, Zulu-speaking and English-speaking. As Bishop Savage had hoped, the training helped to break down barriers between clergy and laity, black and white. The latter aspect of the training was anathema to the government of the day, which appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate these breeding grounds of leftists (a headline in one Afrikaans newspaper was brooines van linkses onthul (breeding ground of leftists exposed) .
Anglican clergy from other dioceses also attended the T-Group training, and so it spread to other parts of the country, and it also spread to other denominations. By 1970 there were ecumenical CELT (Christian Education and Leadership Training) groups in most of the major centres. Some of the lay people who attended were businessmen, who introduced it as work in the form of team-building exercises and so on, so it became quite widespread. Some of those who had originally been trained in the church context set themselves up as management training consultants, and began doing it in purely secular contexts.
T-group and associated forms of experience-based education also introduced new terms (or new meanings for old terms) into the South African church (and later secular) vocabulary. I shall discuss just three of these terms here, but there were others.
- Feedback. Before T-groups “feedback” had an largely negative meaning. It referred to an often-undesirable characteristic of electronic circuits, the most common example being the howling noise produced in public address systems when the output of loudspeakers was fed back into the microphone. In group dynamics jargon it referred to a response to something someone had said in a T-group, usually not to the content of what was said, but rather to the effect that it had on the group’s interaction. It was later extended to almost any kind of response, usually elicited by saying “Tell me what you think of this.”
- Facilitator. Each small group in T-group training (see the Wikipedia article for more information on the training method) had a facilitator. The term facilitator was used because the role of the facilitator was not to be a leader or a teacher. The facilitators were not to initiate group interactions, but merely to give constructive feedback to the group on what was taking place, where necessary.
- Enabler. As part of Bishop Savage’s vision for more active laity in the church, the role of the clergy was defined as being enablers. The clergy were not to be ministers, or do all the ministry of the church themselves. Their task was to enable the laity to do ministry. So enablement goes together with the related term empowerment. The difference between the two terms is that empowerment refers primarily to giving people the confidence to do things for themselves that they had been passively waiting for someone else to do for them, and enablement meant equipping them with the skills needed to do those things. And this conception of the clergy as enablers was introduced by an American, Don Griswold, so it is not a pondian difference.
This meaning of “enabler” and “enablement” was the primary one in my mind until I I saw it in the graphic of the “virtues” shown above, where it puzzled me. And it still puzzles me how a term can come to mean almost precisely its opposite in the space of 50 years or so.
I find it difficult to believe that the negative meaning was widespread when the positive one was introduced, otherwise a different term would surely have been used, to avoid confusion. So there is still a question of how the terms “enabler”, “enabling” and “enablement” came to mean their opposites in popular connotation in the space of 50 years.
Yes, you can probably distinguish them by context, but in the diagram where I first encountered the negative meaning, there are no contextual clues. It just assumes that the negative meaning is primary and that everyone knows it.
Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised, because something similar happened to facilitator.
When I worked in the editorial department at the University of South Africa, someone came to speak to the department about a new task group that had been set up in the university. The person told us, with a perfectly straight face, that the task group was set up to “facilitate conflict”, and wondered why the editors collapsed into helpless giggles.
So what do you think “enablement” means?