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Strategic denial: Misappropriation of words of power

Global Strategies Project


1. Words of power

Edward de Bono has prepared a compilation of what amount to magical 'words of power' (Wordpower: a dictionary of vital words, 1977). He argues: "From the world of business and management come many powerful words which have developed to describe the live processes that go on in that world. In contrast to the academic world which is a world of description, the business world is a world of action and special words have developed to describe in a direct way some complicated processes....These words have to come from the people who understand systems and are not likely to come from the descriptive or literary world...In general it seems likely that our biggest source of language enrichment in the future will be the 'systems behaviour' area. This is because an understanding of dynamic and interactive systems means a whole new way of looking at processes rather than just as things....This I see as the next quantum step in our cultural development".

2. Exploitation of words of power in strategy names

Many strategies are named using similar words of power. The purpose is clearly to embody in the name of the strategy a sense of energy and direction capable of attracting and holding attention. Using a military metaphor, the intent is to mobilize. At a time of rising apathy, there is obvious value in taking this approach.

Policy-makers, and those responsible for implementing such strategies, are however faced with a constraint. Strategies tend to emerge as a political compromise between warring factions. It is expected that a strategy should appear inspiring to the public. The 'spin doctors' of public information departments use all their skills to cultivate that appearance. This may also be vital to improving morale within organizations whose actions are expected to be governed by the strategy. Such skills are therefore used to make of the strategy more than it really is, without stretching credibility to the point of rejection. Public information departments thus benefit from a form of 'poetic licence' which they exploit unashamedly in extolling the virtues of a strategy.

3. Reinforcement of public cynicism

The dangers of this approach lie in the ways in which it reinforces the increasing gap between the expectations aroused and the implementation in practice. Public cynicism with regard to institutional strategies is widely acknowledged. The morale in many institutions is not conducive to great leaps forward. Strategies are seen as merely another political ploy by vested interests. It is even ironic that the so-called Mother of Parliaments ensures the participation and adherence to positions of its members by the use of 'Whips' -- a term used there in phrases reminiscent of the jargon of sado-masochism. Manipulative use of strategies is even more overt in totalitarian societies and groups subject to some form of moral, ideological or conceptual dictatorship.

4. Sustainable use of valued language

It is therefore useful to acknowledge the ways in which powerful words in any culture or belief system can be exploited as a resource. The advertising industry has been remarkably skilled in exploiting words evoking a sense of value in order to market a product, a service or a person. The soft drink industry provides some striking examples. Public institutions have sought to emulate such professional expertise and to use its skills. Many previously valued words, and their cultural associations, have effectively been tarnished and drained of significance in this marketing approach. In a sense humanity's 'cultural rainforests' are being destroyed as systematically as the natural rainforests.

5. Strategic minimalism

There is an associated danger in the use of words of power in naming strategies that is less obvious and more difficult to explain. Establishment institutions tend to ignore or oppose any sensitivity to new dimensions of social dynamics for as long as is feasible. The environment issues provide an obvious example, but most social issues are subject to this process. At a certain point however the balance shifts. It then becomes a political necessity to pay lip service to the dimension in question. For a politician theart is then to appropriate all the previously rejected arguments and to create programmes which have the appearance of taking them seriously. The challenge is to formulate strategies which appear to be responding to the issue but which in reality are carefully designed to respond minimalistically. Any protests can then be rejected by pointing to the strategy. At worst, this may be effectively a hollow shell of no practical significance whatsoever. It may even be designed to serve the vested interests which created the problem. Some governments have ministries of the environment which are primarily concerned with ensuring effective exploitation of the environment rather than with conserving it.

6. Misappropriation to enhance strategies

Blatant formulation of cynical strategies can however be challenged even if the challenges carry less weight. There is a subtler danger. Human development provides an interesting example. Political economists have long resisted any recognition of the importance of this dimension. The human consequences of the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank have however drawn attention to the dangerous insensitivity of this classical perspective of economists. Consequently UNDP now produces an annual Human Development Report. Inspection of this document reveals that its focus is limited to the most basic physical and social dimensions of the range of understandings of human development. It barely includes the socio-cultural dimensions for which UNESCO has a mandate. It completely fails to include any psychological or spiritual dimensions which might be associated with individual or collective well-being. In brief it fails to address the dimensions of alienation which are a primary justification for substance abuse. And yet the term "human development" has been effectively appropriated in such a way that it can easily be claimed that the United Nations system is fully dedicated to this matter.

Such misappropriation of terms may be quite unintentional because of the limitations in the professional training of those responsible. On the other hand it may be quite deliberate, as the reflection of a particularly dominant school of thought. In terms of realpolitik, it may be considered quite appropriate in that it placates, however temporarily, a previously vociferous constituency. But since there is not even the slightest recognition of the dimensions of human development that have been excluded, it effectively undermines any efforts to broaden recognition of the notion of human development -- itself a programme of UNESCO.

7. Degrees of misappropriation

There is therefore a conceptual challenge underlying strategy names and descriptions. To what extent do they reflect a minimalistic or reductionist understanding of the named strategic domain? Are they genuinely, or covertly, designed to reflect a broad spectrum of interpretations of what is indicated -- possibly to ensure a strategic consensus? Or are they designed, whether cynically or inadvertently, to exclude and suppress wider interpretations which may be vital to real breakthroughs?

8. Challenge for development strategies

Any development strategy should be subject to such a critical challenge. Development economists have had a privileged influence on policy formulation over past decades. We are now in the Fourth United Nations Development Decade (1991-2000). With many countries in an increasingly disastrous socio-economic condition, they must be held partly responsible for many strategic failures.

It is legitimate to ask whether "development" itself only acquired and maintained its legitimacy because of the ambiguity with which it could be interpreted by different constituencies. It is claimed to address the needs of the disadvantaged, but it clearly privileges the "developers". Can the United Nations Development Programme distinguish development for personal gain from its own strategies, or should it be more appropriately named the United Nations Developers' Programme? If aid agencies are not "developers", how are their development strategies to be distinguished from those of developers? Does this suggest that there is place for a United Nations Developees Programme?

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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