Guest post by Zsolt Mohacsi.
Maximizing interactive action-items and engineering mission-critical paradigms by leveraging customized experiences through the facilitation of vertical interfaces.
You and I are beings of the totality; we realize that this life is nothing short of an ennobling fusion of life-affirming conscious living, and that innocence is an ingredient of unbridled energy.
This article seeks to define and explain the phenomenon of bullshit in a broader context. It is an attempt at diagnosis, with the goal of generating a discussion, and without that of offering a remedy. In short, the term bullshit obscenely expresses the worth and fundamental meaninglessness of words. As N. N. Taleb wrote somewhere: when you cannot differentiate a text from one created by a random word generator, it is bullshit. In fact, the two examples at the beginning of this article are the results of such an operation. However, beyond sheer nonsense, bullshit usually has a purpose: to manipulate the behaviour of its recipients without using coercion. Harry G. Frankfurt defines bullshit as “speech intended to persuade without regard for truth”. Essentially, bullshit is purposeful nonsense; and as it tends to lose even its purpose, it gradually becomes pure noise.
Bullshit is not necessarily a lie, as it can contain fragments of truth. What characterises such talk is that its unspoken purpose is indifferent to truth. The classic salesman figure from Glengarry Glenn Ross is an epitome of the bullshitter, whose only purpose is to sell. However, the purpose can be more subtle than selling a house: it can be obtaining a favourable perception from an audience or signalling conformity or status. Such behaviour is rampant in modern business, and lately, in politics as well. Some level of discrepancy between the manifestation and meaning (or, more strictly, truth) is inevitable.
The absence of a genuine effort to minimize this discrepancy already signals corruption. Bullshit has an element of anti-intellectuality in it, even though refined scholarly essays abound (especially in modern philosophy and the broader, so-called “social sciences”) that meet the definition of bullshit in their senseless verbosity as well. By intellectuality, we mean an exhaustive effort based on reason to grasp and express truth (as Nietzsche wrote, one should “write with blood”). Consequently, bullshit does not have to be a hotbed of banality: it can eloquently convey thoughts that do not make sense, yet are accepted by the majority without hesitation.
I used the word manifestation on purpose: in the domain of business, we can clearly observe the discrepancy not only in words or language, but also in certain tasks, processes, roles (see David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs), departments, even entire companies or markets. Thus, the ubiquitous loss of the meaning of words is only one part of a broader loss of meaning in business, and as the latter aims to subjugate and distort domains above itself (like ethics, values, identity). How could we expect meaningful, straight communication to take place in an environment that is meaningless itself?
To understand the significance and source of this discrepancy, it is illustrative to first identify its opposite. What if there is no discrepancy between meaning and manifestation (in our particular case, communication)? Such a state is authenticity, which originates in the Greek word authentes (αὐθέντης), which means “one acting on one’s own authority”, derived from autos “self” and hentes “doer, being”. Simply put, if one is authentic, one is oneself, and there is no discrepancy. The potter forms a jug, the barber cuts hair (and chatters), the shoemaker makes a shoe, the warrior slays the enemy, and so on. The question of authenticity does not arise (unless, for instance, a warrior cuts hair and chatters). The word also means a person who is in power and acts on his own right, establishing a connection between power over oneself and over others.
Keeping our focus on business: why does its current form promote inauthenticity? As László Kővári pointed out in his book Critical Thinking?, a major culprit is the prevailing mechanical view. The phenomenon arose at the dawn of the industrial revolution, paving the way for mass production and standardization. Hence, organic identities (like a shoemaker), including their qualitative and idiosyncratic style elements, were cut off, and the remainder, as pure manual labour, was forced into the Procrustean bed of an artificial machine, optimized for large-scale production. Another dominant view, namely the obsession with quantity to the detriment of quality, arose hand-in-hand with and inseparably from the mechanical view of business. From a purely quantitative perspective, not only is one jug like another, but also one man is like another (a sheer number on a payroll) – and as such, is replaceable at any time.
To stay with the example of the shoemaker: now he stands next to the conveyor belt, and glues the same sole onto the same shoe, with a numbed mind, over and over again, until he finally falls into his coffin. As the scale and complexity of the production has grown, and immaterial services proliferated, not only the distance between the contributor and the end-product or service has grown immensely, but also one’s role within the system has become more and more artificial, and therefore, inhumane. In modernity, entire industries appeared whose very activities were unrelated to organic purposes – as a consequence, they are essentially meaningless. Hence, their raison d’être itself is bullshit (unless they explicitly state the truth: we are here only to maximize profits for shareholders, regardless of any other considerations, except for the legal framework).
The discrepancy has become striking: white-collars, both in smaller and larger organizations, sit in artificial roles with artificial titles, work in artificial organizational structures, produce and sell artificial goods and services, serve an artificially created demand, and chase artificial KPI expectations (growth for growth’s sake, in line with the quantitative obsession). Globalization has exacerbated the consequences of these trends: the scaling-up of mechanical organizations (including political bureaucracies) has led to an ever-increasing loss of accountability, lack of skin in the game (see, again, N.N. Taleb), and a prevalence of winner-takes-it-all situations. The troubadour who was once applauded in his own community for his pleasant voice might today do the payroll of an international tobacco firm without a pinch of self-fulfilment, because the majority of society is listening to the same cohort of, say, fifty or two hundred pop singers (who not only sing in a strikingly similar style, but also – according to the Pareto rule – will probably sweep in most or a disproportionately large part of the wealth generated in this sector, compared to the other millions of singers worldwide.
Firstly, bullshit stems from the prevalence of inauthenticity at all levels, discussed above. The friction caused by the discrepancy between organic and mechanical roles (or identities) need to be “lubricated” with bullshit. The rest follows: the mishmash of obscure jargon hides or sugar-coats the ruthless enforcement of short-term material and political interests, displays submission to the herd, creates confusion or misunderstanding (if needed), and signals status or knowledgeability. The fear of being fired or decommissioned or going bankrupt, once one is proved useless or meaningless, permeates organizations that are, ultimately, useless and meaningless themselves. In short, bullshit is the consequence of and at the same time the means to hide the meaninglessness of tasks, processes, roles and companies that should not reasonably exist. Style becomes fake, thus irrelevant – first, it implies a deprivation of authentic character, and then a decoration with the garments of a synthetized and standardized pseudo-identity. Labelling is rampant: social media features hashtagged words, which, instead of being genuinely highlighted terms in a topic discussed, become the drivers of content themselves. Similarly, a vast majority of so-called copywriters try to squeeze in as many keywords as possible in their articles, instead of focusing on having something to say. The purpose of marketing, unfortunately, is the bridging of the discrepancy between appearance and meaning by offering an illusion of authenticity at a grand scale.
Secondly, the distance needs to be overcome: to be heard and to be seen, one needs to shout louder and louder. In business communications, the context-less commercial decree of “growth for the sake of growth” manifests itself as “visibility for the sake of visibility”, whatever the costs born by others and the broader community. Messages have to be shorter, simpler, more stimulating, and transmitted with increasing speed. As Eugene M. Schwarz, a 20th century advertising hotshot suggested to aspiring copywriters:
“Read junk. Very much junk. (…) Subscribe to Ladies Home Journal, Cosmpolitan, Vanity Fair. Get all the very low stuff. Low culture makes big money. Go to remember that! There is your audience. There is the language. There are the words that they use.”*
This is the suicide of the intellect. Truth becomes admittedly irrelevant; to the extent that expecting intellectual effort from the audience in deciphering a message appears to be an insult. My father, as a young Hungarian manager, attended an executive education program at London Business School in the early 1990s, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He voiced his stupefaction to his colleagues over the resemblance of corporate lingo and Communist-era propaganda messages; however, no one understood what he was talking about. Thus, we see a strong similarity to propaganda, which does the same in the political domain. As a result, if one aims to find authentic entrepreneurs or thinkers, one needs to actively seek them (primarily offline) and consciously avoid the selection of the masses (“celebrity” scientists, corporate CEOs, or so-called influencers) as the dynamics of the system place not only inauthenticity – but also a lack of aesthetic and intellectual quality – upon a pedestal.
Thirdly, as such, intellectual inertia is a precondition of bullshit. Receivers fail to recognize the purpose, tend to seek always less meaning, and thus sustain the system en masse. The bullshitters, whose initial stance is an indifference to truth, often become believers in the nonsense they deliver (similarly to Casanova, who fell in love with his own projections on random women), and even forget their original intent. The brainless repetition of buzzwords, or the uncritical adoption of certain views coated with a lofty lingo reduces people to mere transmitters of bullshit, unconsciously fulfilling the purpose of someone else (who is, on the contrary, very conscious). Hence, bullshit thrives on passivity on all ends. Passivity implies powerlessness, which means – according to our previous definition – inauthenticity, resulting in a dwindling capacity and will to fully “possess” my own words, my own language, and my own identity: essentially, to possess myself.
* Breakthrough Copywriter: A Field Guide to Eugene M. Schwartz Advertising Genius
By Dr. Robert C. Worstell
Zsolt has a background in business administration and banking, yet he has always been interested in languages and writing. Currently, he is focusing on combining these two areas and is working as a consultant in the area of communications. His main interest is helping leaders and businesses express their messages in a way that is not only effective, but also conveys authenticity.