December 22nd, 2017

No less a luminary than Douglas Adams saw the dark path the world now travels decades ago when he described our true, galactic ancestors, The Golgafrinchans.

What did they know? André Spicer, writing in a Guardian long read—From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over—explains:

In early 1984, executives at the telephone company Pacific Bell made a fateful decision. For decades, the company had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on telephone services in California, but now it was facing a problem. The industry was about to be deregulated, and Pacific Bell would soon be facing tough competition.

The management team responded by doing all the things managers usually do: restructuring, downsizing, rebranding. But for the company executives, this wasn’t enough. They worried that Pacific Bell didn’t have the right culture, that employees did not understand “the profit concept” and were not sufficiently entrepreneurial. If they were to compete in this new world, it was not just their balance sheet that needed an overhaul, the executives decided. Their 23,000 employees needed to be overhauled as well.

One of those employees was, famously, another Adams. Scott Adams.

Both Adams’ make light, in a dark way, of what Spicer rightly calls the bullshit that is choking us and, in of particular interest to me as an educator, ensuring that creative thought and, you know, learning, joins Bob and Dawn.

One of the corrosive effects of business bullshit can be seen in the statistic that 43 percent of all teachers in England are considering quitting in the next five years. The most frequently cited reasons are increasingly heavy workloads caused by excessive administration, and a lack of time and space to devote to educating students.

Even children aren’t safe:

Even schools are flooded with the latest business buzzwords like “grit”, “flipped learning” and “mastery”. Naturally, the kids are learning fast. One teacher recalled how a seven-year-old described her day at school: “Well, when we get to class, we get out our books and start on our non-negotiables.”

Curious as to where all of this might lead has already led us. Spicer provides the perfect, terrifying example:

In the introduction to his 2015 book, Trust Me, PR Is Dead, the former PR executive Robert Phillips tells a fascinating story. One day he was called up by the CEO of a global corporation. The CEO was worried. A factory which was part of his firm’s supply chain had caught fire and 100 women had burned to death. “My chairman’s been giving me grief,” said the CEO. “He thinks we’re failing to get our message across. We are not emphasising our CSR [corporate social responsibility] credentials well enough.” Phillips responded: “While 100 women’s bodies are still smouldering?” The CEO was “struggling to contain both incredulity and temper”. “I know,” he said. “Please help.” Phillips responded: “You start with actions, not words.”

In many ways, this one interaction tells us how bullshit is used in corporate life. Individual executives facing a problem know that turning to bullshit is probably not the best idea. However, they feel compelled. The problem is that such compulsions often cloud people’s best judgements. They start to think empty words will trump reasonable reflection and considered action. Sadly, in many contexts, empty words win out.

Spicer attempts to end on a hopeful note—he should follow Ta-Nehisi Coates on this—but fails:

If we hope to improve organisational life—and the wider impact that organisations have on our society—then a good place to start is by reducing the amount of bullshit our organisations produce. Business bullshit allows us to blather on without saying anything. It empties out language and makes us less able to think clearly and soberly about the real issues. As we find our words become increasingly meaningless, we begin to feel a sense of powerlessness. We start to feel there is little we can do apart from play along, benefit from the game and have the occasional laugh.

But this does not need to be the case. Business bullshit can and should be challenged. This is a task each of us can take up by refusing to use empty management-speak. We can stop ourselves from being one more conduit in its circulation. Instead of just rolling our eyes and checking our emails, we should demand something more meaningful.

Clearly, our own individual efforts are not enough. Putting management-speak in its place is going to require a collective effort. What we need is an anti-bullshit movement. It would be made up of people from all walks of life who are dedicated to rooting out empty language. It would question management twaddle in government, in popular culture, in the private sector, in education and in our private lives.

The aim would not just be bullshit-spotting. It would also be a way of reminding people that each of our institutions has its own language and rich set of traditions which are being undermined by the spread of the empty management-speak. It would try to remind people of the power which speech and ideas can have when they are not suffocated with bullshit. By cleaning out the bullshit, it might become possible to have much better functioning organisations and institutions and richer and fulfilling lives.

Yeah. Good luck with that. Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, called this in his seminal Politics and the English Language.

This piece is pulled from my Isle Of Misfit Blog Posts and was originally written on 23 November.

Leave a Reply

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image