Finding the Right Word

Throughout my life I’ve regular found myself struggling to find the right word (or name) because of a bad memory — I was destined to be an absent minded professor. But at other times I struggle to find the right word because completely different ways of understanding underlie so many of our words.
This is where I find myself today as I think about think about ethical behavior that is exercised in the midst of unethical behavior. This recently came to the fore again with Soda Stream, and Israeli owned company that leveraged incentives from the Israeli government to locate one of their factories in an abandoned building in the disputed West Bank. For me, this is unethical. But then Soda Stream does something from what I understand is rare, and they provide a fair wage for the Palestinians they employ (which make up a sizable percentage of their employees) that is equal to what they provide their Israeli workers. They also provide a Muslim prayer room. To me, this is ethical.
What is the right word for that ethical behavior? Empowerment? But is it right to call it empowerment when someone first seizes power and then re-gifts a small token of resources back? Granted, the Palestinians gain much needed resources, like money and a work environment that enables them to maintain their faith. And these resources can then be used to not only meet basic needs but to meet higher order needs, perhaps even using them to move themselves or their children into greater opportunities. But no, this is not empowering, nor is it emancipating.
Then again, empowerment is what we often call our programs and services to the Native American nations found within the broader United States boarders, land that we re-gifted to those nations after first seizing the rest of their land. Would restoration be a better term?
Restoration is the term we regularly use to speak of our care of the earth. It is what we do when we first pollute, tap out prized resources, and exercise practices that destroy the earth’s naturally healing system of organisms and organic matter. We then restore the prairies, or the woodlands, or the wetlands when we see the land can’t do it itself.
Perhaps the problem isn’t finding the right word. It’s that each word has come to hide the initial seizure of power and subsequent dehumanization/destruction. Instead we use the word in a way that comes to redefine the problem as a deficit of the victim. We coopt the words in such a way as to dismiss the unethical victimization and to humbly make of the victimizer a savior.
Something that I heard or read, perhaps in Holmgren’s updated book on Permaculture Design, was that if we look at how we treat the earth, we will see how we also treat our fellow humans. And how we treat our fellow humans is how we treat the earth.
Another lesson I’ve been learning from Permaculture is that these are complex problems. They require good top-down principles to guide our solutions. But they will only be solved in any given local context through a recurring cycle of small, slow, participatory observation, discussion, planning, action, and reflection, each cycle leading towards a slightly broader grassroots situated understanding.
Next time you hear someone use a word like empowerment, or emancipation, or restoration, don’t jump to conclusions that you know what they are actually doing or saying. Have a conversation, or a series of conversations, or even better enter into a community of inquiry to explore through reflective action together what you think and mean, and whether it is consistent with what you want it to mean. Only in this way can we work towards a more just exercise of people care and earth care.

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