Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Word Games: Encouragement

Do you ever try to encourage people?

Sure you do. We want to be encouraging friends, the kind of people who give esteem to others that empowers them to pursue valued goals. We expect teachers to encourage their students, parents to encourage their kids, pastors to encourage their charges, bosses to encourage their workers. It's resolutely seen as a positive thing to do, a moral good.

Break down the word a bit. We are granting someone courage, when we encourage them. Courage for what, exactly? Are we encouraging them to go for what they want? Because when someone is waffling between two choices, there's usually some complexity involved, but why do we push them one way or another? Do we push towards what they want, or what we think they should want? If it's the latter, should such an act still be called encouragement? Are we giving them courage, or something else?

The point is, the encouragement frequently has less to do with supporting their values and more to do with supporting our own. It's much more complex than just being a good friend. Assumptions are made, all the time, that we have some idea what it is that other people want. Now, when we've had a conversation with a friend who is wrestling with the notion of applying for a new job or talking to an attractive member of the opposite sex, we can say with some certainty that the friend really wants what they want and they just need some encouraging words. But in other cases - especially when we're talking about kids, or employees, or members of a church - there is hardly any obvious certainty about what they want, nor is that the point. Sometimes they enthusiastically tell you that they DON'T want what you are "encouraging" them to go for. Sometimes they tell you to fuck right off, go blow yourself, 'cause they aren't doing that shit. These people hardly need courage; they're filled with that. But then, we can say that we know better than they do, that they really do want it and they just haven't realized it yet or won't admit it to themselves. Then it's up to us to make the right thing happen - which happens to be what both of us supposedly want.

That's a little presumptuous, isn't it?

Damn right, and that facet of "encouragement" is important to understanding the politics of the word.

You want this. Really. You do.

When we're talking about subjects of real moral importance, the power of encouragement is two-fold: you give the person the push to do it, plus you effectively endorse this action as moral, or at least morally acceptable. You communicate that the action has value. That's why it's so important for people in positions of authority to do it; teachers, parents, and pastors are expected to encourage in moral terms. Our values are often molded by language use, remember. When impressionable people hear someone say that this is what they want to do, what conclusion is there to make?

Not that it's always consciously manipulative. You could just be assuming that the two of you share the same value system. You KNOW this other person wants to join the Peace Corps. If they take that path, you know that they would find it good. Here, there is the presumptuous, but necessary, assumption that everyone has about the same values, and you just help clarify them. We're often wrong, and that person could be cursing your name for prodding them to join the Peace Corps while they are there, but most sensible people have this uncanny ability to take a crappy experience and turn it around as a learning experience, even if they learned nothing except not to listen to the dumbass who recommended it. 

This process is an evolution of the parents and teachers encouraging the kids; we keep encouraging each other, and it helps maintain some hegemony in our values through these communications. And it's a positive hegemony, the unity of the righteous; our words have power, so much power that we can convince other people to believe what we believe simply by the personal equivalent of a product endorsement. We can convince some non-paranoid people so thoroughly that they think it was their idea in the first place. And it clearly works. Western values have been propagated like this for centuries. We are very, very good at messing with each other's heads.

Anyway, this is one of the ways that ideas get a subtle boost to their perceived value: I believe in you, because I know you have it in you to be what I think you should be! It's necessary to engage in this type of manipulation in an individualistic society where you can't just come out and tell people what to do. We would not recognize, or feel right in, a world without it. Lots of people would be adrift without the direction implied by such messages. Liberals are good at it: Obama encouraged people to rethink their stance on gun control. Liberal society encourages low-income kids to go to college. If they were being honest with themselves, they would probably admit that they think they can control society this way, but one thing is for sure; open-minded or not, they aren't going to encourage someone to pursue a value if they don't share it. Neither are you. When was the last time you encouraged someone to do something they really wanted to do, even though you thought it was disgusting in principle? I'll tell you: Never. The closest you've ever come is to say the words "I don't care."

Now, it's perfectly possible that most of us really don't know each other nearly as well as we assume. And pushing encouragement as a policy, on some level beyond the personal and intimate, is really stupid by just about any standard. There is a more honest word for all of this, if you strip away the presumptuousness and just admit how words work, and that your encouragement reveals your preferences, and your culture's preferences, more than those of the subject: Enforcement. If the government uses "soft power" abroad, then encouragement is "soft enforcement" of society's values in our daily lives. Well, maybe you should call it reinforcement.

Or, maybe we just don't want honesty.

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