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The End of a Dirty Word?

Recently we’ve been doing some serious thinking with IJM, an organization committed to seeking justice globally. In our research we came across a word that many of us relate to the global struggle for freedom: exploitation. But, we found a much more positive history to the word and thought we’d enlighten you…

Words can change their meanings over time and it wasn’t too long ago that a person could assign meanings like resourcefulness, profitability, and mutual benefit with exploitation. Which is surprising since for most folks, it means treating people unfairly; acting selfishly and unethically.

In a word: sleazy. But is it possible that this word has been abused?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines an exploit as “a notable act or deed, specifically a heroic one.” And the top definition for exploitation says, “to utilize fully or advantageously; the fullest most profitable use of something.”

That’s not too terrible.

Of course the conventional definition, the toxic one, is right there, too. But it got me thinking: maybe we got it twisted over the years. And maybe we’re not stuck with the bastardized version.

I have to confess, I really like the old-fashioned sense of the word. Exploitation — the good kind — is actually a handy term to have around. It evokes being proactive and industrious.

And it isn’t just limited to personal gain. It has a place among altruism and charity, too.

It could mean something as basic as recycling, or as benevolent as building wells in Africa or sponsoring kids in Indonesia. We might even include traveling to a country with economic troubles like Greece, where tourism is greatly appreciated, as a positive exploit.

The point is, the word deserves a tune-up. If we can set aside the greedy overtones for a minute we’ll see that there are clear implications of action and ambition in there; the kind of ambition that leads us to investing, donating, and employing people.

The kinds of deeds that have helped to lift millions around the world out of poverty over the last half-century.

So are you buying this? Is the term any less creepy now?

I know it can’t happen over the weekend, but my aim is to wash some of the stink off this strange word. So that maybe, gradually, it can be taken off the raunchy list.

For now, however, think of exploitation’s good qualities like productivity, risk-taking, and adventure. And remember: taking advantage of a person = despicable. Making the most of a situation = outstanding.