The terms “empower” and “disempower” are bandied about pretty ubiquitously these days, presumably by people with a genuine concern for groups they acknowledge as underprivileged and taken advantage of. As I often discuss, however, the intention of rhetoric does not excuse or negate its innate destructive implications. In this case, according to its own dysfunctional definition, the term “empowerment” is ironically disempowering. In truer terms, it is both hurtful and harmful.
Let’s deconstruct the word. The noun empowerment is a nominalization the transitive verb empower: It takes a subject and an object; it is something one does to someone else. The pertinent definition of em- is “furnish with” or “cause to be in a condition of.” -Ment creates from this furnishment or cause a “state, condition, quality” or “result, product.” So etymologically, “empowerment” is a condition or result with which one is furnished by another. By extension, dis- denotes a privative or reversing force, again transitive. So “disempowerment” is the active deprivation of such a result as would otherwise be furnished.
To sum up the semantics: To be empowered is not the same as to be powerful. In some sense the two are even opposites. To be powerful is to possess influence. It is to have the property energy, whether kinetic or potential. The circumstances of power’s attribution are syntactically irrelevant. But to be empowered is to have influence furnished by an outside party. The agent is ever-present in its conception, whether spoken or assumed, while the one “empowered” is necessarily either the object, or the passive subject.
To be empowered assumes that someone or something has the capacity to grant you power. That is possible only if that agent is already more powerful than you. Therefore, to claim to empower– or to disempower– another person is to not just acknowledge but affirm one’s own station of privilege and normativity. Empowerment does not change the balance of the power structure– it merely offers a charitable reprieve.
What supposedly disempowered people really routinely face is disenfranchisement. It is our opportunities, not our attributes, that are curtailed. Conflating disenfranchisement with disempowerment is like saying that being imprisoned makes a person unable to chew through steel bars. The solution is not to give them sharper teeth, it’s to get rid of the fucking bars.
So don’t you dare presume to empower me. Don’t think that my sex, my orientation, or my disability means I need your permission to be powerful. Don’t feed me platitudes about being “special” or “differently abled.” I am well aware of the scope and shape of my own abilities. Sometimes, regardless of circumstances anyone can control, I lack the strength– in any sense you like of the word– to live the life I want and need. That’s my burden to bear. I don’t need to be fed platitudes about it. Just don’t put me in a cage, and then you will never have to let me out.