Plastic Language and Its Effects

When words are used uncritically or haphazardly they lose their message and meaning.

Resilience is one of those feel-good words that is being used a lot these days to describe the ways in which people are coping, managing, adapting, and thriving in the harshness of the start of the 2020’s.

Michael Orsini is asking this word to be retired. Writing in Policy Options magazine he states:

Moulded for maximum appeal, plastic words crop up everywhere, from scientific to popular discourse. We are all supposed to know what these words mean. Upon closer view, however, it’s not exactly clear what they mean.

Much like their petroleum-based consumer-focused counterparts these plastic words are pervasive, hard to break down and increasingly toxic.

Interpretive Meaning, Deceptive Impact

Consider the cultural challenges posed by a nod of the head or a ‘yes’ when uttered in response to a comment. In some cultural contexts there are multiple meanings of this such as: I hear you, I agree with you, I acknowledge you, or I understand you. There’s a big different when someone nods to say ‘I hear you’ and the other person thinks ‘I agree with you’, when that might not be the case.

We can get the same thing with plastic words.

The issue from the perspective of policy-making and practice is that words that cease to provide any guidance for strategy and evaluation if their use is so imprecise, haphazard, or dynamic . This isn’t to suggest a rigid approach to language; it’s about finding ways to have shared understanding around issues of importance. I think the idea of resilience is an important one and, much like words such as ‘community’ and ’empowerment’ I find much plasticity in the waters of discourse when they are uttered.

Orsini points to what happens when plastic language is uttered in social policy: it obscures, hinders, and threatens the very reason why terms like ‘resilience’ were once useful. If everyone who manages to find a way through hard times is considered resilient and we view that as a positive attribute, then we are less likely to question why people need to be resilient in the first place. It then makes it far easier to continue on as is.

The idea that recovery from trauma or disadvantage builds character is particularly odious because it marks certain communities as needing adversity to toughen them up while allowing others to simply go about their privileged lives. The narratives that swirl around resilience often invoke stories of strength in the face of adversity, telegraphing that you, too, can shake off the cumulative cycle of disadvantage.

This is how we continue to neglect systemic issues. The impact of structural, systemic design issues is obscured because we are focused on the individual and their particular coping and adaptation abilities. This is hidden impact, causes and consequences.

Co-opting Concepts for Design

Resilience at its best is showing how human beings can draw on enormous, sometimes previously unknown, resources within them to rise up and meet challenges. It’s one thing if those challenges are truly unforseen and uncontrollable, but many of the challenges we throw at people are not that at all. They are design problems. Toxic workplaces, uninspiring schools, unsafe neighbourhoods, polluted spaces are all examples of settings and contexts that require some form of resiliency to manage over the long-term. All can be repaired and addressed at a system level requiring few ‘resiliency’ resources to manage.

Just as we can re-arrange plastics found in a harbour into patterns such as the image above from Hamilton, Ontario, we can do the same with our ideas of what being resilient means. That rearrangement of social negatives into positives doesn’t change the fact that the plastic is there. The toxic problems are there. We can get co-opted into designing for resilience when designing for living will do.

We can believe we need to measure, capture, and celebrate resilience at the expense of doing the same to capture the systemic design aspects of our organizations, communities, and environments that prompt us to have to be resilient in the first place.

The choice is ours and so too is whether we recycle our language or not waste it in the first place on plastic thinking.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash and Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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