The Rise of the Staffers

In English as spoken on the island of Britain, ‘staffer’ is an obviously foreign word.  In the same way as ‘lawmaker’ and ‘mom’ are painfully foreign words.  Its frequency in our media, though, is growing, and that’s a symptom of a particular political problem. Like Elvis Costello nearly said, there’s no American Without Tears.

As I’ll start to show here, we should kick ‘staffer’ out of our routine political conversations for that reason, and replace it with the words and categories that it has been developed to hide.

Before we unpack the term, let’s start with some definitions and examples.  Those of you familiar with Raymond Williams’ methodology in Keywords may be hearing alarm bells right now – he warns that starting with a popularly accepted definition is a reliable route to conventional misunderstandings.    

Don’t fret.  Our chosen word just won’t let it happen.  Most words appear relatively straightforward and trouble-free when competently defined, even if that’s an illusion that disappears on close examination.  But ‘staffer’ wears its troubles all over its ugly face.  Merriam-Webster gives us this:

: a member of a staff (as of a newspaper)

We can see from this that staffers come into existence by an unusual route.  Workers are people who work, drivers are people who drive, writers are people who write.  In all these cases, the word is derived directly from the activity.

But ‘staff’, if used as a verb, is ‘transitive’. 

Transitive verbs are special.  Using them means that the speaker or writers needs to give us extra information before they’ve communicated anything meaningful at all.  So that in Merriam-Webster, the bracketed bit ‘as of a newspaper’ is required even for the definition of the word to seem to make sense. 

You can (linguistically speaking) drive without specifying what exactly it is you’re driving, or work without telling us what your work is, or write without giving us chapter and verse of the book you’re working on.  But, in order ‘to staff’, you absolutely have to tell us what it is that you’re staffing. 

You need (to be technical about it) a linguistic object before you can meaningfully use ‘staff’ as a verb.  All competent English speakers automatically know this.  That’s why you, despite your vast life experience and perfect recall, have never heard a conversation like this one:

                         A:  “Hello B, What you up to these days?”

                        B:  “Oh, just … staffing, you know…”

Now, I hope you’ve been watching carefully, because there’s a really neat magic trick coming up.

Because in American-derived mediaspeak, there’s no need to provide an object for the word ‘staffer’, even though this renders the verb that the noun is based on completely empty of meaning. 

This may seem like just a linguistic technicality. 

It ain’t though. 

It means that ‘Staffer’, as a word, and by its very construction, is a systemic avoidance of meaning.  When it is applied to a person, it tells us nothing about what they do, whilst looking very much like a noun that tells us what they do.  It pretends to be about action, whilst actually being about status. 

At most, it does what Merriam-Webster tells us, and shows that the person referred to is a ‘member of a staff’, whilst (again) avoiding the question of exactly how they gained membership of that group.  (You can tell there were some issues at Merriam-Webster with this one, by the way.  Since when was anyone a member of a staff, rather than a member of staff?)

So, how does it get used?

Four ways. 

One is (I believe) irrelevant to us, except possibly as the popularising usage of the term.  That is the sense of a member of a military staff.  This definition is actually quite precise – a military staff consists of military officers assembled for a defined purpose under a clear command structure.

The remaining three usages all have obfuscation and meaninglessness at their heart.

Firstly, we have unelected people who report to elected politicians.  The American usage of ‘staffer’ has these people as selected by the politician, but as paid for by government.   

They are what many of us would at one time have called ‘parliamentary civil servants’, if they had job security and were working for the common good, rather than solely the agenda of their personal or party boss.

This usage, when employed on the eastern end of the Atlantic, interestingly, edges far closer to including unpaid interns amongst ‘staffers’ than the Americans do. 

In this story about the terminally rapey Tory MP Rob Roberts, for instance, a female intern is repeatedly mentioned having exactly the same problems with Roberts that the repeatedly mentioned male staffer had – so much so that the article could equally be about either one of them. 

And in this story about Conservative Central Office putting pressure on ‘staffers’ to keep quiet about sexual abuse, it’s quite hard to imagine the party forgetting to bully unpaid interns to shut the fuck up in the same way it was doing with paid staff.

Second, we have people who are members of (primarily) media organisations, with the power to decide the meaning of the final output.  This is, interestingly, the definition offered by Collins as an informal UK English usage, following an established US definition:

 

: a member of staff, esp, in journalism, of editorial staff

Finally, I’d like to offer my own interpretation of the term and its meaning, which encompasses all the intended and implied meanings noted so far. 

I’ll give you it short like a dictionary entry first, and then I’ll expand some of the awkward bits:

staffer noun, transitive

North American English

Synonym for 'worker' in military settings, or by imitation, in political settings in formally democratic states where all major political parties reject the organised working class holding parliamentary power. By extension, also used to refer to non-manual workers in media, computing and lobbying.

UK English: as in North American English, with the additional implication of signifying intellectual or moral agreement with the American usage. 

I think that covers it, although it does leave a fair bit to be said.

Some of what’s left to be said is pretty inconsequential. I’ve never encountered an Irish person using the word ‘staffer’. That’s why I haven’t talked about ‘English as used on the island of Ireland’.

Most of what it leaves to be said relates to the awkwardness of a professional term that relates to status rather than function.  We understand that, in politics and in media, ‘staffers’ don’t rise or fall on the basis of competence or of work done, but on the basis of their closeness to or distance from power: power understood in a very particular way. 

Staffers as a group do not have set roles, or things that they are supposed to be doing at any given moment.  Their entire being is expressed in their shared membership of a powerful group of status seekers.  Their function is not to serve ‘the people’ – as we once expected civil servants to do – but to ‘play politics’, to seek personal advantage.

This playing works not by a set of moral rules or strategic principles, as it might if the staffers were taking part in a real-life ‘game’ with a defined victory condition. They are not playing in that sense, though the ruling perception amongst the higher status staffers is that this is the nature of their pursuit.  Rather, they are ‘playing’ in the sense of knowingly taking part in a competition that is being dramatised for an audience.  This reality-tv-without-tv elevates the personal above the structural; the person above the job, the dramatic above the careful, the entertaining over the sane.

I hear you. 

You’re thinking I’ve pushed this definitional thing too far into the realm of speculative philosophy and other such vagueness.    

Nope. 

The staffer-as-reality-tv-contestant concept is more prosaic than you may think. It has several important implications for how our world is going to function for the rest of our lives.

Firstly, for most of us, the game finishes. 

Even elite footballers and boxers are held to standards of decency in their competition by the fact that the game will be over, in around ninety minutes or twelve rounds.  If they overstep the boundaries of the rules too far, visibly or often, they are out of the game.  For workers, even superstar workers like these, working within the rules (or with careful reference to socially permissable stretching) is part of the game. 

For those who perceive themselves as ‘staffers’, whether in the White House, the Senedd, Holyrood, Westminster, Canberra, Mirror Group HQ, CNN or Apple, there is no final whistle.

The game / play / episode doesn’t stop for sleep, weekends, or Christmas.  No matter what a staffer does, or suffers, their story is never definitively over. 

Fuck it, this game don’t even stop for genocide.  For staffers,  just like the Sopranos, the hustle never ends.

Second, everything is visible.

Unlike you or me (or Tony Soprano), staffers are incapable of ever keeping secrets. They may destroy records or hide evidence but this too is done with the maximum of publicity. Why? Because everything is designed as part of the drama, and secrets are useless as long as they remain secret.

For a staffer, the only use of hiding anything is to reveal it later. The types of possible reveal are infinite (or, to be precise, as infinite as the ideas in American television drama from which American broadcast news channels draw their structure). They can consist in tiny ongoing subplots to tie up loose ends from ealier episodes (there were no weapons of mass destruction) or as central, dramatic lust stories in the perpetual staffer drama (some people filmed themselves fucking in an American parliamentary building. This story will run until the next sex scandal, and then be revived when that fades).

As a result, there’s a third implication for all of us that stems from the spread of staffer culture to the rest of the Anglosphere, with its likely sequel of its colonisation of professional life across the planet. Status-derived bullying and abuse are core to the lives and social function of staffers, rather than being merely peripheral.  It’s why when you type the word ‘staffer’ into your search engine, once you get past the bad definitions, you’re heading straight to the dark side.

It ain’t what you do.  It ain’t the way you do.  It’s who you do it to.

Networking, and betrayal. will be the basics of the new emotional literacy, and the economy built upon it.

Happy New Year.