Friday, December 17, 2010
The language of Deceit
Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist in the latter part of the 19th Century whose pithy and tough definitions of everyday words, in his newspaper column, attracted sufficient attention to justify a book “The Devil’s Dictionary” whose fame continues unto this day. A dentist, for example, he defined as “a magician who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket”.
Words and language are what distinguish us from animals – but commercial, bureaucratic, political and intellectual systems have powerful interests in keeping us passive and unquestioning and have developed a language for this purpose. One of the best attacks on this is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language”. Written in 1947, it exposes the way certain clichés and rhetoric are calculated to kill thinking – for example how the use of the passive tense undermines the notion that it is people who take decisions and should be held accountable for them.
The importance of demystifying complex language was continued by C Wright Mills in the 1950s and 1960s who once famously summarised a 250 pages book written in tortuous syntax by the sociologist Talcott Parsons in 12 pages! And a South American priest Ivan Illich widened the attack on the mystification of professionals with his various books which eloquently argued against the damage done to learning by formal schooling methods – and to health by doctors and hospitals.
In 1979 some British citizens became so incensed with the incomprehensible language of official documents, letters and forms that they set up a campaign called “The Plain English Campaign”. It was its activities in making annual awards for good and bad practice that shamed most organisations – public and private - into reshaping their external communications. Their website contains their short but very useful manual; a list of alternative words; and lists of all the organisations which have received their awards.
It is 50 years since I started to read the literature about government and its endeavours seriously – as a student of politics and economics just as the social sciences were flexing their muscles and popular management texts appearing (we forget that Peter Drucker invented the genre only in the 1950s). And I entered the portals of (local) government in 1968 – keen to identify what that growing literature might have to say about improving the practice and impact of government endeavours. At first I was amused at the verbal pretensions – then angry. “Governance” was one of the first terms to attract my ire. Only recently have I realised how deliberate much of it is. As governments have fallen in the past few decades even further into the hands of spin doctors and corporate interests, a powerful new verbal smokescreen has been put in place to try to conceal this. “Evidence-based policy-making” is typical – first the arrogant implication that no policy-making until that point had been based on evidence; and the invented phrase concealing the fact that policy is increasingly being crafted without evidence in order to meet corporate interests! Sadly, a once worthy venture – the European Union – has developed such powerful interests of its own that it too is part of this significant obfuscation with its use of such phrases as “subsidiarity”. More than 10 years ago, I prepared a glossary for a small book which contained a few ironic definitions – and I managed to slip a few more into one of the EU-funded publications I left behind recently in Bulgaria (you can see it at pages 7-11 of key paper 22 on my website ). While you’re there – have a look at “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” (number 17) which is written from the same concerns about the emptiness behind the rhetoric about democracy and government. At the beginning of the year I referred to the management guru Russell Ackoff’s great collection of tongue-in-cheek laws of management – Management F-Laws – how organisations really work. As the blurb put it –“They're truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore - simple and more reliable guides to managers' everyday behaviour than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers”. An added bonus is that British author, Sally Bibb, was asked to respond in the light of current organizational thinking. Hers is a voice from another generation, another gender and another continent. On every lefthand page is printed Ackoff and Addison's f-Law with their commentary. Opposite, you'll find Sally Bibb's reply. A short version (13 Sins of management) can be read here. A typical rule is - "The more important the problem a manager asks consultants for help on, the less useful and more costly their solutions are likely to be". And I have also mentioned a couple of times the spoof on the British Constituion prepared recently by Stuart Weir.
It is people like Ackoff, Jay, Orwell, Pierce, Voltaire and Weir who are the inspiration for the new revised Devil’s Dictionary I am now working on - of about 60 words and phrases which occur frequently in the discourse of government and big business and are used to mask the worsening of social and political conditions. One I crafted today was - Bottleneck; "what prevents an organisation from achieving its best performance – always located at the top"