Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Creating leadership to raise awareness of poor language

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I recently skimmed a Wikipedia page with the almost absurd claim “[he] devoted his time to raising awareness of childhood obesity”, which leads me to have a look at a few words/phrases that have annoyed me for a long time.

To begin with, unsurprisingly, “raising awareness”:

I cannot count the number of times that I have encountered this nonsensical “raising awareness” and I cannot remember more than a small fraction of the causes for which awareness is being raised. This makes the phrase hackneyed and pointless.

I have never quite understood what “raising awareness” would amount to, the phrase is too generic, and the implications can be very different from context to context. This makes the phrase uninformative, even potentially misleading.

The number of apparent causes is so large that it makes the phrase, even the general idea, disputable (also see an excursion below): Firstly, most of the underlying issues are either too trivial to bother the broad masses with or so obvious that any even semi-educated person will already be aware of them. (As with e.g. childhood obesity in the modern U.S.) Secondly, the number of issues is too large for anyone to be seriously “aware” of more than a small fraction of them. (And the limited “awareness” is, obviously, best spent on issues with a personal relevance or where a personal effort can bring something. Someone who tries to “raise awareness” of childhood obesity with me, a childless adult, wastes my time.)

There might well be worthy actions available to those who want to help with a certain cause or issue (and there might be some causes and issues far worthier than others), but “raising awareness” will hardly ever be one of them.

If someone provides an information service, then say so.

If someone raises funds, then say so.

If someone holds speeches, then say so.

Etc.

The we have variations on the “leader” and “leadership” theme:

For instance, consider how many colleges proudly proclaim that they are “educating the leaders of tomorrow”, how many activities will “improve leadership skills”, or how many “leadership” awards there seems to be.

“Leader” seems to be increasingly used merely as a term for someone of some level of accomplishment, and not necessarily a very high one. The aspect of actually leading* is often absent or reduced to being a claimed role-model, being a “leader by example”, or having at some point led something trivial, like a handful of boy-scouts or a three-person department (as opposed to e.g. an army regiment resp. a Fortune-500 company). Indeed, the truly competent are often not found in leadership positions, e.g. because they are not sufficiently interested in self-promotion and socializing, or because their ideas are voted down by a less competent majority.

*As an aside, I have a fairly low opinion of many types of leaders and leadership ideas in general. This in particular with leaders who focus greatly on motivation and/or are poor decision makers.

A brilliant scientist, e.g., might well be a “leading scientist” and might even legitimately have “led the field”, in the sense of being a forerunner, but these meanings are only tangentially related to “leadership” and “being a leader”. Why then speak of “leadership” and “being a leader”, unless separate proof of leadership is present?

From another point of view, consider the reality of the world vs. a Lake Wobegon where everyone is a leader: How many college graduates, e.g., will ever have a leadership position actually worth mentioning? Is it not better for an engineering student to focus on becoming a great engineer than on being one of the “future leaders of the engineering profession”? For a med student to focus on becoming a great physician than on being one of the “future leaders of the medical profession”? If in doubt, very many engineers will end up in a “Dilbert” scenario, “led” by an incompetent middle-manager*, while very many physicians work endless hours to remain in the middle off the pack. Looking at non-STEM students, they are often found “leading” customers to include fries in their fast-food orders.

*As an aside, making managers and administrators more than assistants of and paper-work handlers for the core work-force might have been a grave mistake.

If in doubt, when a college degree has become the norm, calling college graduates “leaders” would result in an army with more generals than privates.

Similarly, if someone played a major part in a sports win (possibly, any part), he “led” the team to victory, while, apparently, the team’s coach did not. Going by biographies and CVs there might be teams out there with as many leaders as players …

I might go as far as suggest that the reader bans terms like “leadership” from his vocabulary. Often, they are entirely misleading; when not, more specific* words are usually better, to avoid both the taint of today’s wishy-washy meaning and the risk, when applied to oneself, of sounding self-aggrandizing.

*Which words will depend on the circumstances, but calling Trump “president”, Merkel “chancellor”, the mayor “mayor” and the major “major”, and so on, would be better than speaking of the “leader of [whatnot]”. In collectives, “heads of government” would be better than “leaders of countries”, etc. Semi-generic, but still more specific, terms like “decision maker” can work well in many contexts.

Finally, consider “create”:

Increasingly, a song-writer no longer writes songs but “creates” them; a designer no longer designs but “creates”; replace an ingredient in an existing drink, and you have now “created” the whatever-you-choose-to-call-it; etc. On one occasion, I actually read that someone had “created” the hair of some celebrity or other—not even the hair style, but the hair …

A particular negative examples is an actor “creating” a part: Never mind the preceding work of a playwright or director—if an actor takes on a new part, he “creates” it. As much as I acknowledge an actor’s ability to interpret a part, variations of “create” will hardly ever be fair and meaningful. If this was limited to the first actor to play the part, I might have been content with pointing out that “originate” would be a better word, but, no, if the play moves from London to New York, a second actor might be credited with “creating” the very same part, move to Paris and we have a third, etc.

The word is used in such a blanket manner that it is beginning to lose all meaning. (Not to mention removing nuance from the language. Compare e.g. “I wrote this text” with “I created this text”.)

And, yes, I have seen cases of the double-whammy “create awareness” … (But, in all fairness, that use of “create” is much more acceptable.)

Excursion on the purpose of “awareness”:
From a non-language angle: What is awareness supposed to achieve? Those who are actually affected will usually already be aware—and those who are not, are unlikely to be sufficiently bright and willing to be made aware.* On the other hand, if someone never interacts with children, it will rarely matter whether awareness of childhood obesity is present. If some old lady spends her evening with concerns about all those poor obese children while she watches TV, how does that make the world better? Her evening would certainly be more pleasant without the awareness. If awareness changes voting patterns, it will usually do more harm than good, because few issues are even remotely important enough to outweigh the totality of other factors that decide a vote. If someone donates money, it might harm another charity or take away business from someone else—and money given to charities often mainly serve to keep the charity, it self, its employees, and its contractors in money. (Raising all that awareness can be quite expensive …) If more people join a march or run a marathon with a certain badge, then this achieves nothing, except, possibly, to raise more awareness.

*Take someone who is sufficiently uninformed, unobservant, or uncaring, to not prevent an obese child from stuffing himself with chips and soft-drinks. Would this someone be likely to listen to warnings against childhood obesity? Fervently write down tips for a better diet? I doubt it.

Now, if awareness was directed at truly big issues where ignorance is common, there might be a point—but it rarely is. For instance, consider formation of opinion (political opinion, in particular): if more were aware of how important it is to think for oneself, to look at both sides of a story, to read deeper accounts than what newspapers provide, to have a solid knowledge of history, to have free speech even for dissenters, …, that could have a major positive impact on the outdated or otherwise flawed opinions that plague current societies, which, in turn, could have a major positive impact on public policy. Very few* actually “raise awareness” (if that loathsome phrase is tolerated) in this area. Of those who do, hardly any are considered philanthropists, and quite a few are condemned for spurious reasons, like allegedly supporting a particular movement after merely having advocated that its members, too, must have free speech.

*I am one of the few, which explains the example.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 18, 2020 at 4:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

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