CULTURE AND SOCIETY by David JamesNews Weekly
Poisoning the wells of language an act of war
, July 18, 2015
“Please outsource the human resources to meet the key performance targets.”
Don’t be fooled: this is not an
economic diagram of capital flows.
It sounds like language from a concentration camp, or a Soviet gulag. Images of body parts being shovelled into pits spring to mind. Yet expressions of that type are now the standard idiom in management and corporate life. If language use is any guide, we are entering an era of extraordinary savagery.
In a logical, or literal sense, the phrase “human resources” is simply incorrect. Humans are not in any meaningful way a “resource” (as a resource they are mostly water, plus a few trace elements). Humans act, resources are acted upon.
But that is not the point. By using such a barbarous figurative expression it becomes easier to dehumanise staff. Rather than having to think of staff as self-aware, complex people with whom it is necessary to relate in a humane way, employees can instead be characterised as objects, resources, to be manipulated at will. And if they object to such dehumanisation they can be classified as inappropriate pieces of a machine that can be, well, downsized. This is especially advantageous when avoiding the emotional implications of retrenching staff; it can simply be explained that this is what the machine requires.
Author George Orwell commented that if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. His description of language abuse in 1946 accurately depicts the nonsense that spews out of management reports and management education:
“Writing at its worst ... consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier – even quicker, once you have the habit.”
That is exactly what happens with management language. This kind of nonsense abounds: “Only if we have the core competencies will we be able to action the key deliverables going forward. We need to incentivise proactive synergistic visions to think outside the box to leverage our assets.”
In plain language, all that is being said here is: “Only if we have the necessary capabilities will we be able to achieve what we want to do. We need to encourage people to come up with constructive, imaginative plans if we are going to take advantage of our abilities.”
It is easy to find humour in these idiocies. But in a very real sense it is not at all amusing. For one thing, although most managers know perfectly well that they are speaking rubbish, by learning to speak the dialect – being able to “gum together long strips of words” – they confirm their membership of an elite, of a dominant tribe.
Having the capacity to spout such rubbish creates access to power and money. And eventually you can actually fool yourself into thinking you are saying something by allowing yourself to be seduced by your own metaphors. You may even end up thinking that there is actually a thing called “human resources” that can be leveraged or downsized or outsourced or actioned.
Signals about power
There is not much difference between the language of the corporate world and the (much criticised) corrupted language of the Soviet Union that Orwell so successfully satirised. The two types of language use are alike in that there is little interest in literal meaning and a great deal of interest in the signals about power. The capitalist world likes to think that it has triumphed because its market-based ideology was more closely related to something intrinsically human. But in terms of language use, corporatism and communism are similarly inhuman.
The degraded use of language does not end there. The jargon of economics is arguably more pernicious. Consider, for instance, the use of the figurative phrase “capital flows”. Capital is, literally, a transaction based on an agreement about value and obligation. Can agreements “flow”? Only in a figurative sense, and even then it is hard to picture. So why do economists use the phrase? Because they want to make a human activity into a thing, much as the expression “human resources” is people made into things. A human activity, the making of transactions, becomes impersonal; something like a fluid that sloshes around the world.
Having reified it in this way, they can then pretend to be scientists analysing these “flows”. Rather than being seen as an activity undertaken by self-aware people, capital is turned into a sort of natural physical phenomenon. Then a sense of inevitability is created about these “flows” and the implication is that people will simply have to accede to these forces (something we are seeing with the harsh treatment of Greece at the moment).
This determinism is reminiscent of the historical determinism that underpinned communism. It is also wrong. Markets have self-aware people in them, which means they cannot be predicted and do not behave in a way that is inevitable. This can be demonstrated with a simple thought experiment. Even if someone were to discover universal laws of economic behaviour that predicted, in all cases, how prices were set, these laws would only hold true as long as nobody knew them. The moment someone knew them, they would seek to make a profit out of the price movements, at which point the laws would no longer hold.
The profit-seeking person’s actions would have to occur after the laws had been created, so they could not have been accommodated within the original laws. Coming up with a science of markets is simply impossible.
The liquid metaphor
But that is not really the aim. By creating a metaphor of money as some kind of liquid inevitably flowing around the world, a deception is perpetrated. Neo-liberals, proponents of “financial deregulation” have used this verbal trick over a period of about three decades to undermine financial governance. Financial “deregulation” is explained in terms of those liquids flowing around the world. Release the barriers – government rules – and the liquid will flow to where it is most valuable and everyone will benefit.
An image of the removal of sea walls, or weirs, is created, with the implication that everyone will benefit and the markets will realise a utopian state of equilibrium (there is even an economic doctrine called General Equilibrium Theory).
This is rubbish. Financial transactions are rules. They cannot be deregulated. What happened instead was that governments stopped setting rules, leaving the traders to make up their own. Instead of the number of rules being reduced, they ballooned.
Complex, rule-driven financial instruments called derivatives (essentially side bets derived from more conventional transactions) exploded, almost destroying the monetary system of the world in 2008. Derivatives now sit at over $US700 trillion, about 10 times annual global gross domestic product. It is astonishingly reckless.
Once again, the deceptive use of language is all about acquiring power and money. Those setting the financial rules in the market have become our rulers, the new sovereigns. But they have been able to conceal this by arguing that it is inevitable, in the same way that gravity always ensures that water must run downhill. That “fluid” must find its equilibrium, and too bad if people get in the way. Something that has been created by people, money, is used to rule over them.
Language used to hide meaning
Any human system that does not have people as its centre will create brutal outcomes, and the symptoms of it occurring can readily be found in the way language is used.
The questions should be asked: “What is the language doing? If it is using figurative devices, what are they connoting or implying?” This is the approach routinely used in literary analysis; it needs to be applied more widely.
At the literal level, the misusers of language can easily conceal their dishonesty, or outright malevolence, by obfuscating their meaning. Managers can readily spew out jargon that conceals their real intent, because they are usually either saying nothing, or something so banal it does not need uttering. Economists can attach mathematical formulae and a blizzard of numbers to their propositions to create the impression that they are engaged in a type of science, even though their discipline has nil predictive validity – you would usually be better off tossing a coin than listening to economic forecasts.
But they cannot conceal what they are doing with the language. In that sense, they are naked. Orwell noted the reciprocity between language and thought. In a sense we “speak” ourselves into existence: how we use words shapes who we become. When managers routinely deploy such brutish phrases, it is inevitable that it will affect the way they think. They will become more brutish.
When economists interpret human activity as the predetermined workings of a physical system, in which humans are merely objects or forces, they will inevitably become callous, indifferent to the human effects of what is occurring.
Drawing attention to how words are being used thus plays a potentially civilising role. Taking a literary approach to language, looking at how words are used as well as what they refer to, is a moral imperative.
Many have noted how phrases like “national security” and “terrorism” are being used with an Orwellian intent to manipulate and to restrict people’s imaginative options. That is scarcely a new phenomenon, although it is no less insidious for that.
The problems of language use go much further than that, however. The virus of management-speak and economics-speak is infecting most areas of human endeavour. It can even be detected in areas like education or the arts, where its use is absurd.
It may be partially understandable to use such language on the production line, where the aim is to standardise human work. But when we start hearing about education having to “leverage the students’ human capital”, or how it is important to develop the “intellectual assets” of artists, we have really lost our way.
David James is a Melbourne journalist, writer and musician.