How About This Time We NOT Be “Transformed.” For A Change.
One other highlight of the new issue of Quaker Theology is a commentary on Quaker overuse of the terms “transform/transformation.”
Just as I was preparing it, I found a notice that The Center for Spiritual & Social Transformation, part of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California just changed its name (on September 1, 2015) to the “Ignite Institute.”
Why? Director Jakadai Imani said the change was made because the original name was “a bit of a mouthful, and and did not speak to your role in this work. At this important moment in the life of our work we want a name that captures the imagination, passion and commitment that each of you embody.” (Facebook page, 09-01-2015)
Right. Or maybe they were just sick and tired of the old name. Or they’ve been reading my mind.
You ask me, it’s a sure sign of a needed change coming:
Over the past couple of years, I’ve become something of a nag about the overuse and cheapening of the terms “transform” and “transformation” in religious and especially Quaker writing and speaking. Overuse is not transformation’s only problem, though, just the most obvious; we’ll get to some others presently.
It’s easy enough to document Quakerdom’s saturation with it, from books to workshops to conferences to major presentations. My pick for the champion (so far) is the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture, “Open for Transformation.” The talk’s summary program description managed to repeat the term seven times in a mere five lines, and four more in the preamble.
The overuse of the term is undeniable. What seems not to be noticed, however, is that the constant repetitions have worn out its meaning and usefulness – its spark. It’s like putting too many miles on a tire: the treads wear off and the tire loses its ability to grip the road. (Indeed, the lecture introduction above, despite the repetitions, doesn’t really tell what “transformation” means; I suspect it meant several different things.)
“Transformation” has also been through the same cycle of excess in the business world. In fact, numerous high-flying consultants are warning their clients to avoid it. One of the most striking comes from Lawson Abinati, who runs a consulting firm called “Messages That Matter.”
“Clearly, transformation as a positioning concept is overused, which is just one of several reasons you should avoid it at all costs. I’ll even go as far as to advise that you don’t mention transformation in any of your marketing communications. That’s because transformation is so overused that target audiences have become jaded. They’ve heard it so much that they either ignore it or roll their eyes and call bull shit.”
But for Abinati, repetition isn’t the only problem with “transformation”:
“Lack of credibility makes transformation an even less desirable position to claim. While it is debatable whether any of the companies making the claim do, in fact, deliver on their promise to transform, none of them explain how they do it. They don’t deliver the proof to substantiate the claim.”
He’s right. The term is now so empty that it can even be used just as easily for unsavory or downright evil purposes. In fact, that’s where my unease with it began.
How bad can it get? Think back to when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, acting against international law, the voices of most world religious leaders, not to mention all strategic logic.
Yet the motto of its planners was – well, let’s hear it from a military historian, Andrew Bacevich, who in his book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010), says of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:
“His agenda upon taking command of the Pentagon [in early 2001] reduced to a single word: transformation.”
And what kind of “transformation” did Rumsfeld and his circle have in mind? His close lieutenant Paul Wolfowitz put it to Congress this way:
“The goal of [military] transformation is to maintain a substantial advantage over any potential adversaries. . . . If we can do this, we can reduce our own chances of being surprised, and increase our ability to create our own surprises, if we choose.”
Surprises, indeed. By May of 2003, President Bush was preening and boasting on the deck of an aircraft carrier about how, in the seemingly easy conquest of Iraq, “We have witnessed the arrival of a new era,” in which “With new tactics and precision weapons we can achieve military objectives without violence against civilians.”
That same day, Vice President Dick Cheney repeated the meme in Washington:
“‘Iraqi Freedom has been one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted.’ Victory in Iraq offered ‘proof positive of the success of our efforts to transform our military to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.’” Transformation had “allowed us to integrate joint operations much more effectively than ever before, thereby enabling commanders to make decisions more rapidly, to target strikes more precisely, to minimize human casualties, civilian casualties, and to accomplish the missions more successfully.’”
Speaking again to Congress, on May 6, Wolfowitz went even further: “The American people need and deserve a transformed Defense Department.”
Another “defense intellectual” cheerleader, Thomas Donnelly, declared that
“[T]he strategic imperative of patrolling the perimeter of the pax Americana is transforming the U.S. military . . . into the cavalry of a global, liberal international order. Like the cavalry of the Old West, their job is one part warrior and one part policeman–both of which are entirely within the tradition of the American military. . . . Although countless questions about transformation remain unanswered, one lesson is already clear: American power is on the move.”
“Countless questions” indeed; with, it turned out, very few answers. Soon enough — more surprises — the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan “transformed” into historic disasters. By the time George W. Bush left office, Bacevich notes that the whole war effort had become “redolent with deception, stupidity, and monumental waste.” And the enormous toll of death and destruction fell especially heavily on the civilians about whose safety, Bush, Rumsfeld and the others had claimed to be so solicitous. Bacevich’s verdict is grim, and undeniable:
“Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation initiative followed a similar trajectory and suffered a similar fate. What seemed ever so briefly to be evidence of creative genius–Rumsfeld prodding, cajoling, and lashing hidebound generals into doing things his way with spectacular results–turned out to be illusory . . . .
Campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq intended to showcase an unprecedented mastery of war demonstrated the folly of imagining that war could be mastered. When he finally left the Pentagon in late 2006, Rumsfeld found himself running neck and neck with Robert McNamara for the title of worst defense secretary in U.S. history. The concept of transformation had become a symbol of the overweening arrogance and hucksterism that had characterized his entire tenure in office.”
(All above quotes from Bacevich; emphasis added.)
Like many others, during these years I watched with deepening horror as this grotesque drama of epic self-deception and massive devastation played out. (Note to Self: It’s not over yet.) And though I was personally safe from the bombs and waterboarding, maybe it’s a sign of my complicit citizen’s form of PTSD that “transformation,” the term its sociopathic architects made a brand name of this national madness, has ever since echoed in my ears like a shudder.
Guilt by association? Absolutely! That’s part of my point. There’s more to the problem of “transformation” than simply overuse. Its vacuousness has made it a ready tool for selling some of the very worst features and episodes of our recent history.
But besides being corrupted, the term is also becoming hopelessly vulgarized. When I checked “spiritual transformation” on Amazon, there were twenty screen pages devoted to it, running the gamut from Anglicanism to Zen. And not all the transformational items were books: talismans and jewelry I expected; but the transformational bath salts and roll-on deodorant were new. And how far is it from transformation oil (a bargain at $125 an ounce, with free shipping) to good old-fashioned snake oil?
Yet there’s no end: Just as I was writing this piece, a fundraising email from a venerable Quaker-founded body landed in my in-box. And sure enough, it wanted my donation to
- help “young people” in Ferguson “transform educational and law enforcement systems”;
- to aid unnamed others whose goal is “transforming the ways those in power relate to the communities they serve”; and
- most transparent of all, to help the group in “securing the funding for our transformative programs.”
That’s three times in just over 300 words; and with only the merest hints what the first two instances mean “on the ground”; typical.
But when I ask of weighty Friends, how do I tell which “transforming” Quaker do-good program is more truly and urgently “transformative” than the other Quaker-Sponsored “transformational” efforts – the answer is evidently that those repeating the term don’t seem to care.
And I wonder why. Where’s the evidence that it even works for fundraising? A quick search turned up several lists by marketing experts of “powerful words” for program promotion and fund appeals; the longest tally included 189 words and phrases.
And “transformation” was not on even one of them.
So let’s sum up: “Transformation” is overused and banal; it’s no help in differentiating among programs or groups; with meaning drained away, it now works just as well to sell warmaking, imperialism, and killer drones as anything “spiritual” or peace-promoting.
And just in case someone concludes from this piece that I hate progress and want everything to stay the same, I’ve compiled a list of thirty alternative terms which can fill in for “transformation,” from “change” to “revolution.”
So there’s hope. The “Ignite Institute” shows the way.
If Quaker “leaders” were to start using some of these other terms, I bet it could transf–
— Umm, I mean, it could renew, reform, transfigure, remake, alter; convert; metamorphose; overhaul; transmute; transmogrify; revolutionize; rebuild; reshape, reconstruct; rebuild; reorganize, rearrange; rework; rehabilitate; revamp, remake; regenerate; renovate; update; redevelop; remodel; restore; reconstitute; restructure; progress; turnaround; reform–
Why, it could change everything!
(And we might even know what we’re talking about.)
BTW the full commentary is here, in Quaker Theology #27.