Getting Off the Merry-Go-Round So to Speak

In 1993, when I was working at a California state agency on a controversial project, every team meeting featured two agency managers suggesting, often, that we should be “getting off the merry-go-round.” It took me awhile to realize the purpose of the merry-go-round metaphor was to sabotage an open discussion of a proposed analytical approach. Whether or not others figured it out, the metaphor had its intended effect. The deciders decided we should be “moving forward.”

Language is powerful and most people naturally deploy short cuts to describe complicated ideas. We process so much information that we often rely on these short cuts to give our brains a break. There are a lot of language short-cuts out there right now and most of them deserve a little scrutiny…

…like these (with handy links to better articles for your reference):

“Diversity” — When I was trying to find a kindergarten for my son Gabe 23 years ago, administrators at private schools would describe their student body and faculty as “diverse.” Visiting each school, I realized “diversity” to these administrators meant a couple of Asian students and a black teacher’s aide. These days, corporations and political campaigns are making a point to describe their leadership teams as “diverse.” That could mean (and in some cases apparently does mean) a black employee acting as the head of a diversity program. The word “diverse” has come to mean whatever its user wants it to mean.

“Divisive” — The media and politicians often use the term “divisive” when they are worried about offending people who are on the wrong side of the divide. Divisive is what middle school girls do when they form cliques you can’t join. Calling Mexican men “rapists” is not divisive. It is racist and cruel. Mississippi’s confederate flag is not “divisive.” It is a hateful insult to some of America’s most important values. And divisive is not necessarily a bad thing. The best decision-makers welcome a variety of ideas and opinions. And sheep are not divided when they follow each other off a cliff. “Divisive” has become a euphemism.

“Look like America” — Like several of his predecessors, the 2020 democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has promised a leadership team that will “look like America”. For this to be true, 40% of the team would be obese, 33% would be under the age of 24, and a good chunk of them would be sporting high fades or ag hats. I am guessing the phrase means the team’s racial and gender profile will look like America. In that case, Mr. Biden could keep his promise by hiring millionaire women and PoCs from Big Pharma, Big Oil and Wall Street. “Looking like America” doesn’t necessarily mean democratic representation on matters of policy and law, things Mr. Biden doesn’t talk about much.

“Tolerance” — When Gabe was eight, he got in trouble for being disruptive during a classroom session called “We’re All the Same, We’re All Different.” A wise friend suggested that Gabe understood the real message was “We’re All the Same, Gabe is Different.” For years, schools have been teaching children about “tolerance,” a word that implies ways “we” should be treating “them.” It seems to have been a word chosen by the dominant culture to describe its (aspirational?) relationship with people considered to be an underclass. How would you –or do you– feel about being tolerated? Tolerance may be the worst word ever applied to mutual respect and understanding. Fortunately, it seems to be losing ground.

“Bi-Partisanship” — When someone advocates for “bipartisanship,” or “working across the aisle,” I know I am supposed to cheer them on but I don’t. On one side of the aisle, an evermore-corrupt use of government to benefit the few. On the other side of the aisle, silence, inaction, blaming. Remind me why we want bipartisanship. Remind me who among a band of thieves is going to give back what they have stolen from the American people. I think we should stop talking about an alliance between the Mitch McConnells and the Chuck Schumers as if it were a national policy priority.

And if you are wondering what happened to my controversial government project, I’m sorry to say, it didn’t end well. Shortly after the team got off the merry-go-round, the state restructured California’s energy industry using a political process instead of one that relied on analysis by decision-makers. A bunch of corporate people made a lot of money, including one of the advocates for getting off the merry-go-round. A few years later, the state experienced an energy crisis that cost utility customers tens of billions of dollars. It’s a long and complicated story, but it was a disaster that was predictable and predicted.

So. You know. Don’t be too taken in by catchy phrases.

Photo by New York Post


  1. This is, as usual, Kim, a provocative article, with much good food for thought. Thank you for kicking us in the ass, once in a while and making us think about all the euphemisms we use in daily discourse that lead neither to solutions, nor a better and more just society. We have to learn to “dig deeper”–stay on the merry-go-round, until we find a way to create a better nation/world for the interests of all.

    1. Hi Sher! Thanks for the comments — I am laughing because in my “enthusiasm” for the subject, I didn’t mean to kick anybody in the ass! :Stay safe and healthy. Abrazos.

  2. Thanks for this, Kim. Simply brilliant. Here are a few more euphemistic oxymorons for your list: “family values”; “precision bombing”; “acceptable risks”; “intelligent drones”; “humanitarian occupation”…

  3. I agree with Fred above– brilliant, Kim! I love your analytical brain, and I’m glad you are here now, writing about what’s going on in this country. As a school principal, one of my favorite magazines was Teaching Tolerance, published by Southern Poverty Law Center. You are right, what a ridiculous name!

    1. Hi Wendy, I have tried for 5 years to tone down my analytical brain and I was making progress when our national roof started caving in. The teachers in my family (I think we have five of them depending on how you count) also love SPLC’s program. I checked their website, which features an apology for the use of the word “tolerance.” I wonder why they don’t change it! Abrazos….

  4. Thank you for this eye opener! Beside the poignant point you made, this brought up for me of “low hanging fruit” and “we need champions” which make me cringe. The low hanging fruit was always accompanied by the hand gesture of pulling down invisible fruits. The phrases you described are far more dangerous to our collective psyche and we fall into their alluring traps way too easily. Love your posts!

  5. Words and phrases can have great power. I think you’ve made an admirable case highlighting the need for each of us to carefully re-examine how we use and hear many of the words and catch phrases with which we’ve gotten overly comfortable. Some/many may at first have had a certain precise (good or bad) meaning, but have been corrupted, changed or watered down over time. Yet by continuing to use them thoughtlessly we get trapped into their matrix of unstated implications, assumptions and general opaqueness. Continued use undermines our ability to actually hear each other, communicate together, and work toward change. I will make a bigger effort to identify and be careful in my usage of many of the catch phrases that are in my standard repertoire beyond the ones you highlight. Thanks!

  6. Nice column! Some thoughts …

    Nit picks – but I think the point in your divisive section is misleading.

    With the state flag. I think it is worse than divisive. But I don’t think that is what you are against. I think what you are against is not that but a meta level higher – calling out the fact that it is racist is called divisive. But it should be done anyhow. I’m not sure how to state it more succinctly or clearly though.

    One other kind of analysis is using the opposite of a word to understand what the word means. I think the language around tolerance developed in a religious context – where you had to reconcile the fact that what you believed was deeply at odds with what someone else believed. And, your religion may require you to condemn the other belief. So tolerance meant disobeying your religion to tolerate a conflicting belief. Applying this same thinking to race is just weird.

    I don’t know what to think about getting off the merry go round. The term ive seen more commonly used to describe what you are saying is ‘analysis paralysis’ – which suggests action is necessary at some point.


    1. Thank you Ben! Update on the word “tolerance.” SPLC and the “Teaching Tolerance” organization have been trying to get rid of the word for years. I don’t know why the process has been so slow but they say they are going to do it.

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