and all its relatives, like empowering and empowerment.
What is wrong with this word? It certainly is very fashionable. Of course that may itself be taken as a strike against it; words that are fashionable often become fashionable because they make it easy to pretend we are saying something substantial when we are merely passing air over our vocal cords.
The case against empower, however, is stronger than that. It is a rare example of a self-contradicting word. As soon as we have said it, we know that whatever we have said is not true. Or, worse, we have revealed a painful truth that we wished to conceal.
Let us imagine a hypothetical example. Suppose you are very concerned about working conditions in Concernistan. You happen to control a large importing firm, and you decide that you would like to make a difference in the lives of the traditional craftspeople there. So you come to an arrangement with some of them by which they will sell you their traditional hand-crafted toothpicks at a price that you consider fair, meaning that it will enable you to meet the price point that the American luxury-toothpick market will bear while still making a tidy profit for your shareholders. Having made this arrangement, you proudly—we had almost said smugly—declare that you are empowering the traditional craftspeople of Concernistan.
And immediately we know that you are not empowering them. You are, in fact, arrogating ultimate power over their lives to yourself.
Why do we say that? It is a necessary conclusion from the word empowering. If you are empowering a traditional Concernistani toothpick-maker, you are saying that you get to decide exactly how much power she can have. You are placing yourself in the position of a god to her. If you can turn on the power, you can turn it off. Just imagine her coming over to your country and empowering you—arranging your life just the way it will be most profitable for her, so that she can tell her more enlightened Concernistani friends that you are now living a life almost as good as the life they live in Concernistan. How do you think you’d like that? Not much.
There is only one way out of this trap, and it is not a good one. You can use the passive voice. Instead of saying that you empower the toothpick-makers, you say that they are empowered. But this will only disguise your meaning for so long. The real meaning is still the same: that someone in our country is doling out power to these people, and it must be power on the terms that suit the empowerer. If we owned slaves like the ancient Romans, we might give them a pass to the market and a sestertius to buy lunch for themselves, and they would be empowered in exactly the same way.
Now, Dr. Boli knows that his disapproval will not stop American companies from claiming to have empowered the benighted natives of this place or that. As long as American shoppers are willing to turn off their brains and not think too deeply about how the products they buy got to the shelves at the EmpowerMart, home of the enlightened consumer, the word empower will still be valuable to the marketers.
But if you want Dr. Boli to take your argument seriously, you will not use the word empower. Instead, you will have to say what you mean, which will once again involve figuring out what you do mean. It will be work, but it may cause you to learn something, and that will make it worth your while.