From the KFTAOA mailbag

A reader writes: “‘ROBUST’…..Personally I regard this as the single most dickish word in current circulation. Please have at it. Thank you.”

Have no fear, reader, it is in the queue and slated for destruction in the next month or so.

Suggest future keywords here!

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Arne Duncan comes down with a case of acute Keyword logorrhea, reports Inside Higher Ed

“White House pivots to accountability and outcomes,” reads the distressing headline on Arne Duncan’s call “for colleges to be held more accountable for graduating students with high-quality degrees that lead to good jobs.”

Misdiagnosing the disease and misprescribing the cure, Duncan’s “pivot” is a classic example of the deceitful rhetorical misdirection implicit in that word. You “pivot” when you want to change the subject or avoid uncomfortable conversations, as Duncan does here in “seeking to reframe higher education discussions around student outcomes rather than student debt.” This is a response, the article suggests, to pressure from student groups (like the Corinthian debt strikers) and presidential candidates, which presumably means Bernie Sanders. Duncan “pivots” to “accountability” and market-driven “outcomes,” and away from the less market-friendly problem of tuition and debt.

So: less debt relief for students, more bureaucratic oversight and expense for faculty, more economic pressure on students.

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 21 / Wednesday Night Fights: “Equity” vs. “equality”

Tonight we debut an occasional, perhaps never-to-be-repeated feature called “Wednesday Night Fights,” in which two similar terms go head-to-head to reveal which one is the true Keyword for the Age of Austerity. Two words enter, only one leaves.

Suggest potential candidates here or here.

On Twitter the other day, my friend @ughitsaaron suggested “equity” as a potential Keyword. As he points out, it is often used as a synonym for “equality,” but seems to really mean “fairness,” a more limited definition. One example of this usage comes up in Guardian article about whiteness and activism in the Black Lives Matter movement: “we need co-conspirators, not allies,” said one activist, demanding the disciplined, intentional movement-building solidarity of “conspiracy” instead of the atomized, individualistic, even narcissistic position of “allyship.” Journalist Rose Hackman quotes one African American speaker at a demonstration who tells a crowd that whites in solidarity with the movement must “work to make sure that black people are given the equity that we deserve.” Or take this example from the Washington Post, on the campaign to extend D.C.’s mass transit into parts of Prince George’s County, a historically Black suburb, that are poorly served by the Metro. The proposed Purple line, the journalists write, would be an “instrument of economic and social equity.”

I don’t actually contest the point being made in either case, and the words are so similar that it’s understandable that writers and especially speakers might use them interchangeably. But why the turn to “equity” when the seemingly more familiar and, to my ear, more sonorous “equality”–the “equal chance and right to seek success in one’s chosen sphere regardless of social factors such as class, race, religion, and sex”–is clearly the intended meaning?

When “equity” is used in this political sense, it is (in the United States, anyway) used most often in close proximity to the adjectives “racial” and “educational” (or both). See, for example, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, or the Aspen Institute’s roundtable for racial equity (its function: “to think, talk and problem-solve around race”). My own institution, Wayne State University, features a project run through its Law School’s Keith Center for Civil Rights called the Detroit Equity Action Lab, whose purpose is to “address issues of structural racism in Detroit.” One of its biggest funders, the Kellogg Foundation, notes on its website that that “racial healing and racial equity are essential if we are going to accomplish our mission to support children, families and communities in creating and strengthening the conditions in which vulnerable children succeed.” The Portland, OR Public Schools calls its initiative on the “achievement gap” between white students and students of color its “Racial Educational Equity Policy.” And the U.S. Department of Education headlines one of its major policy statements “Equity in Education” (in which the one use of “equality” seems merely stylistic, to avoid repeating “equity” twice in one sentence). Perhaps the use of “equity” to describe racial and educational inequality reflects the fact that in the United States, “inequality” in general is often understood as a function of race alone, and public schools have been a primary (some might say the primary) way of addressing racial segregation. But the fact that so many institutions prefer racial equity  to racial equality suggests that “equity” is a more neutral, more anodyne, less demanding alternative to “equality,” and less likely to tempt political opposition. After all, no one can be against “fairness.”

“Equity” is most often used in its financial sense: “the difference between the value of the assets and the cost of the liabilities of something owned,” Wikipedia tells me. It does, however, have a social meaning as well, whose OED definition is at leftoed-equity. Equity is a disposition, here–the “quality of being equal,” or “even-handed dealing.” It’s an individual characteristic or behavior, rather than a social or political condition. The distinction becomes even sharper when we consider the Greek etymology the dictionary gives us (admittedly, it’s buried deep in the word’s history, as the source for the Latin equitas). ἐπιείκεια, says the OED,

 meant reasonableness and moderation in the exercise of one’s rights, and the disposition to avoid insisting on them too rigorously. An approach to this sense is found in many of the earlier English examples.

Equity, then, was both an individual characteristic–a characteristic or behavior–and a kind of moderate, inoffensive disposition towards fair dealing. Note again the second half of that first sentence: “the disposition to avoid insisting on [one’s rights] too easily.” So: less allies, more co-conspirators; less equity, more equality?

Winner and newest Keyword for the Age of Austerity: Equity, in a landslide. 

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 20: Pivot

In the first season of Silicon Valley, the HBO sitcom that poked (gentle, but often hilarious) fun at tech-industry and creative-class myth-making, the vest-wearing, number-crunching technocrat Jared is kidnapped by a malfunctioning self-driving car belonging to the show’s tech mogul villain. Jared eventually escapes and makes it home in the midst of a crisis for his startup, Pied Piper. Sleep deprived and manic, he sets out to save the company with a “pivot.” He reassures his colleagues that many successful companies rebranded themselves early on in order to survive: Chatroulette, he explains, began as a social media platform but then pivoted to “become a playground for the sexually monstrous.”

As Jared explains, the basic technology his group has developed will remain the same–the “pivot” only changes how they market it to outsiders. As Jared’s suggestions become increasingly flat-footed and desperate, we see that the normally straight-laced numbers man is so traumatized by his desperation to “pivot” that he becomes nearly monstrous himself: he has no interest in what Pied Piper develops, as long as it develops anything marketable (aps for rat-detection and child-stalking are two of his ideas).

The season ultimately ends with a conventional tribute to to “going your own way,” as the coder-heroes innovate their way out of their dilemma by improving their original product. Nevertheless, the episode satirizes “pivoting’s” pretensions to both corporate “agility” and statesman-like strength–see, for an especially tedious example of the former, the Obama “pivot to Asia.” (The irony was lost on some writers who read Silicon Valley as an ode to “pivoting,” which is the power of “creative thinking, flexibility and perspective. Essentially, when life gives you lemons, just pivot.”)

The “pivot” contains a conflict inherent in many of the keywords for the age of austerity, which celebrate 1) zealous moral commitment (the Way of the Entrepreneur) and 2) acquiescent flexibility to the demands of the market (the “nimble” organization that turns on a dime, or in response to a trend). This may not be a contradiction for those for whom “the market” is an omnipresent, eternal force, a mystical object of entrepeneurial devotion, rather than a political instrument and historical notion. So in so many of the keywords I have examined thus far, the training of one’s entrepreneurial attitudes goes hand-in-hand with the shaping of one’s body by the disciplining austerity of the marketplace.

For anyone else, the proliferation of bodily metaphors in economic writing—nimble, agile, flexible, robust, even “austerity” itself–reveals both the naturalization of market logic, which is in our very bones and muscles, but also, sometimes, the cruelty it can inflict on those who labor. As I wrote in the entry on “flexibility,” workers exhorted to be more “flexible” are required to stretch themselves further and further, sacrificing their family life, health, and happiness for their job. “Pivot” is a peculiar example of economic body talk because it is the most nonsensical: we can see why a corporation or an employee fearful of layoffs might want to be “nimble,” leaping and springing gymnastically to meet every need, but pivoting is all about constraints on movement. A person “pivots” by moving right or left while they remain stationary; in basketball, of course, you can’t move the “pivot foot” after you pick up your dribble. A second baseman turns a double play by pivoting from his right to his left without leaving the base. Alternatively, the pivot is, as the OED says, “any physical part on which another part turns”–a tool in the manipulation of some larger object. This is how the word used to be used metaphorically, in political journalism that referred to various countries as strategic “pivots.” Taiwan and Japan, for example, were often described as “pivots” in Cold War Asia. (Are “pivots” always in Asia? Or only on islands, like Cuba, site of Obama’s newest pivot?). Political parties could also occupy a pivot position, exerting leverage one way or another, as when a 1967 New York Times report on the French elections described the Socialists as a pivot between left and right parties. This is more in line with the conventional definition of “pivoting” as stationary movement, which provides leverage for shifting direction one way or another.

Until the late 1990s, “pivots” were, like “nimble,” mostly found in the sports section. Screen shot 2015-07-06 at 10.58.09 AMIts recent explosion in political journalism is seemingly borrowed from business jargon, where as Jared shows it translates roughly as a “rebranding.” In its political lobbying, the Catholic Church is said to “pivot” from “social issues” to inequality and the environment. Eastern Europe, wrote Frank Bruni in 2003, “pivoted” in a secular direction after 1989. In 1999, Bruni–he appears to be a pioneer here–used it to refer to political candidates’ practiced, canned redirection of journalists’ questions. “Mr. Hatch can pivot from just about any subject to a pitch for his campaign’s Internet site,” Bruni wrote. Here, one “pivots” from one question to another if you can’t answer the first one. I suspect political journalists like the word as much as they do because it calls attention to the rhetorical dancing politicians do to flatter journalists.

So “pivots,” being essentially media exercises, are inherently superficial and highly personalized forms of accounting for complex economic and political processes. My favorite case in point comes from Fast Company, which never met a superficial category that it didn’t love and therefore has a whole column called “The Pivot.” Detroit’s bankruptcy, it turns out, was a “pivot.” (Snoop Dogg’s transformation into Snoop Lion? A pivot. Obama’s 2012 reelection as president, er, “Pivoter-in-Chief?” You guessed it. The column writes itself.)

The tech world has a word for Detroit‘s bankruptcy filing yesterday, and it’s not fiasco, fatal, or doomsday. It’s pivot. If something fundamental isn’t working—the business model, the core technology—you make a dramatic change, despite the risk and short-term pain. It’s a gambit for the long-term survival of the enterprise.

The article is a particularly tone deaf but not exceptional account of the bankruptcy as a clean start, a clearing of accounts and a break from older “mismanagement” and “corruption” (why a municipal bankruptcy overseen by banks and political appointees would be logically more competent and less corrupt than normal city business is never explained). Many “serious” journalists described the bankruptcy in this basically moralistic way, perhaps because the actual legal process was too byzantine to assess it any other waygiphy.

The Fast Company author’s examples–a few entrepreneur profiles, some Dan Gilbert puffery, etc.–are par for the course. The “pivot,” which claims to be so substantial, is really just a clumsy illusion: turning around in a circle, shouting “Ta-da!” and hoping nobody notices.