by John Kay (Visiting Professor, London School of Economics)
Financial Times 11 July 2005
When George Orwell wrote his magisterial essay, Politics And The English Language, in 1946, bullshit was political bullshit.
There is still a lot of that about. Election campaigns in Britain, constitutional arguments in Europe and global summits in Scotland have produced political bullshit in quantity.
But the worst abuses of the language now come from business people and management gurus.
Lies and spin communicate, but what they communicate is false. The defining characteristic of bullshit is that it does not attempt to communicate at all. Bullshit has the vocabulary and syntax of ordinary language but not the meaning.
And, in fact, the metaphor is not apt. What we describe as bullshit is more like candy floss --- when you bite into it, there is nothing there.
The symptoms of bullshit are familiar. Stock phrases are parroted without thought --- change drivers, organisational transformation.
Words are given meanings different from their ordinary sense --- government spending is called investment.
Bullshit creates new words --- empowerment, creovation --- but these do not define original ideas. They describe concepts too nebulous to be expressed by terms with known meaning.
Bullshit is characterised by prolixity --- "serving customers better" becomes "striving for continuous improvement in the customer relationship management space".
Why do people talk or write when they have nothing to say?
Sometimes there are good reasons. When the Queen pays a royal visit, her remarks tell people nothing other than that she is present. But that purpose is important. Some of what senior executives do has this symbolic role. Such speeches are properly short and banalities suffice.
So most bullshit is simply to fill space. Sometimes, people do not want to speak but are required to. The growing culture of audit and accountability has stimulated such obligatory communication --- read any corporate risk assessment or statement of auditors' responsibilities. Written by word processor, read by nobody, this material is generally innocuous.
But the purpose of bullshit is often deceptive. The squirming politician, forbidden to lie but unable to tell the truth, must bullshit.
[see "Lifting The Veil On Singapore Politics";
But not all the audience had noticed that the words they heard meant nothing. If you are asked to report on implementation milestones towards Key Performance Indicators, you are obliged to reply in the same language. Before long, you speak this way yourself.
Proper academic training, which emphasises substance over form, is an antidote, and many universities still provide it. Business schools, where both the faculty and students must disguise how little they know, sometimes do the opposite.
The most powerful enemy of bullshit is ridicule, and the most powerful ally of bullshit is the corporate conformity* that makes such ridicule impossible.
The more authoritarian* the culture, the more bullshit.
If bullshit tells you nothing else, it tells you something about the organisation* that excretes it.
[* hallmarks of the PAP political organisation]