Bill Long 1/20/06
A Proposal for a TV Show
Rarely has a word risen so quickly to such high levels of popularity and frequent usage in American English as has "disempowerment." Indeed, a better title for this essay might be "The Empowerment of Disempowerment." It is a term that was forged in the experience of civil rights lawyers in the 1970s but broke the color barrier in the 1980s to refer to any oppressed group. The term also proved useful to psychologists and now is a standard term describing an array of symptoms from ennui to alienation to general dissatisfaction with life. Scholars love the word, and are now writing on the "anatomy of disempowerment" or the "democratization of disempowerment," whatever that might mean. One web site helpfully listed a series of "disempowering words," such as "I could," or "I think," and then urged us to take control of our lives by using such bold words as "I can" or "I choose."
I found it fascinating that the so-called arbiter of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, does not yet have the word (hm..perhaps a hint of lingering neo-colonialism?), even though disempowerment has been attested for at least 25 years in scholarly and legal literature. Fascinating for me also was the realization that disempowerment has only appeared in a handful of federal or state court decisions in the past quarter century while, in that same period, legal academics have used the term in more than 1000 articles. I think the proliferation of "disempowerment" in the latter context is ironic in that legal academics, the most glib condemners of disempowerment (of women, minorities, the disabled, etc.), themselves benefit most by the extreme hierarchical structure of legal education. But let's put ironies aside for the moment and concentrate on how we can capitalize on our country's growing fixation on disempowerment. We can do it, of course, through a reality TV show.
Setting the Context for a "Disempowerment" TV Show
The recent flap over fabricated stories in James Frey's Million Little Pieces forms the deep background for this suggestion. Apparently Frey overstated the severity of some of his youthful indiscretions or purportedly criminal behavior in this best-selling book. But, rather than fessing up and taking his medicine like a good boy, he and others rose to defend his actions. After all, the story is a great tale of redemption, and redemption is what people want and need today. That was the justification for supporting Frey. Redemption sells. Who wants to hear the story of one who has been saved from the depths of emotional distress in Grosse Point Estates when you can have someone who was redeemed from drug use and general mayhem in neighboring Detroit?
But as I was mulling this rationale over and over in my mind in the past week or so, I said that the American people are smarter than that. Maybe that is wishful thinking, but here is my thinking. Certainly we are all touched by someone who overcomes personal adversity. Such a person, like Lance Armstrong and his bout with testicular cancer, can become an inspiration for a nation or, alternatively, cause a lot of people to wear yellow wrist bands. But, we also know that redemption just doesn't happen. With all due respect to Jesus Christ, redemption is not something we just believe in and it miraculously takes place. If there is such a thing as redemption in life it costs a lot of blood and sweat and tears, and probably ought not to be made into a Hollywood picture. I think that much more prevalent in life than redemption is the daily reality of desperate living. My TV show would pick up on this reality.
The Concept behind "Disempowerment," the TV Show
The idea is that guests would be invited to the show (host is currently undetermined) in order to tell the stories of their disempowerment. The range of things that can disempower a person is nearly endless. It could be a relationship ending (or continuing, for that matter), a job lost, a slight received at work, a realization of something from your past that debilitates, a health setback, a loss of any kind. We could even begin the show by having psychologists describe the nature of the phenomenon so that we can see it clearly before us. The guests, then, would describe their experience(s) of disempowerment. The host would ask some skillful questions to draw out the contours of the situation clearly. Possibly audience questions would be entertained.
Then, what would we do? Nothing. The host would offer no hope. Callers-in would be cautioned about easy answers to the person's problem. As a matter of fact, "keep your chin up"-type of statements would not be permitted. They would be recognized for what they usually are--reactions of fear by people who are really trying to say, "I hope your situation isn't contagious."
I think that if people were allowed to present their situations without rosy optimism or stories of redemption, they would evoke one of three reactions from people who heard them. The first might be--"I am glad I am not this poor slob." If the audience so reacts, it might lead to people feeling proportionally more grateful about their circumstances than previously. A second reaction could be, "Well, life really sucks, doesn't it?" However, by not attempting to "save" the person from his/her disempowering experience, I think we contribute more to empowering a person than by doing anything else. A final reaction could be a question to the disempowered person. "How do you live your life when things are that bad?" I would love to hear a person who has described his/her disempowerment describe what life is like for them day by day. Let them try to piece life together for themselves. Let the discomfort that they communicate stay there for all of us to hear.
I think we would discover more about the glory of the human condition by listening to tales without redemption than reading tons of books of people who were saved. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised in the next decade if the emphasis on the "redemptive" nature of Jesus's life and death begins to be downplayed in Christian teaching and preaching. More and more people will begin to see through the notion that some thing or person "out there" can redeem us. We will grow up and realize that redemption is a much more nuanced and difficult concept than that. The TV show "Disempowerment" will show that.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long