Notes from underground

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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:

VirtuesI reposted it, with the comment that I was puzzled by “Enablement”, as I could not see where it fitted. I would have said “Altruism” there, perhaps, even though it sounds a bit Ayn Randish.

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?



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7 thoughts on “Enablement — a new pondian difference?

  1. Both definitions are valid, and I’m pretty sure both definitions are understood by both Britons and Americans.

    But “enablement” is the sense of allowing self-destructive behaviour (or making such behaviour easier, or turning a blind eye to it, etc) is a term used in psychiatry/psychology, and I think it’s the more common sense, because of the plethora of books and movies out these days focusing on psychology. It’s also a term heard quite often in Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous (so I’m told). 😉

    I personally have a friend who’s a psychiatrist, and HE uses the word in that sense quite often, so that’s why it’s the first thing that popped into MY mind when I read your chart.

    • See also the third definition of the verb “enable” on Wiktictionary:

      The second definition is, I think, what you initially had in mind. 🙂

    • See the revised version of the article. The term as I have qalways understood it also arose in psychology, specifically the humanistic psychology propounded by Carl Rogers. So perhaps the difference in meaning signifies a war between different schools of psychologists, or the psychologists’ left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

  2. Thinking about it a bit more, I think my understanding of the term was shaped by my involvement in theological education and training for ministry, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. In those years especially much was made of the role of full-time church-supported ministers in the church as “enablers”, They were not so much “ministers” as enablers of the whole church for ministry. This was based on a particular interpretation of Ephesians 4:11-12, where the task of apostles etc was “equipping the saints for the work of ministry”. So this meant that training for ministry was a matter of equipping the equippers and enabling the enablers.

    Enablement was quite close in meaning to “empowerment”, though “empowerment” implied that the people who needed to be empowered were powerless, often as a result of social structures and conditions, whereas “enablement” did not imply that the people who needed to be enabled were previously disabled.

  3. Evan Kirshenbaum on said:

    “Enablement” (more often “enabling”) at base just means making it possible (or easier) for something to happen. That something can be positive or negative. In the case of enabling self-destructive behavior, it’s typically not “encouraging”, but rather “helping the one doing it avoid consequences”. The notion is that the enabler typically hates what their loved one is doing, but can’t bear to see them hurt and doesn’t realize that by covering for them, they’re making it less likely that the other will stop.

    • Until you mentioned it, that meaning was entirely unknown to me, and I saw the role of an “enabler” as entirely positive. I did, however, see a negative connotation in Hitler’s Enabling Act, which allowed the Nazi Party to rule Germany without consulting the Reichstag.

  4. I’ve been looking at a blog post that uses “enabler” in the positive sense in which I’ve always understood it. I think it’s a good article in many ways, and worth reading Opinionated Vicar: Fresh Expressions of Vicar 2: How to get the Vicar out of the Way

    The subtitle is “From incumbent as the focus of unity to incumbent as enabler on the margins”.

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