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Vol 25, No.05 (May, 2013)

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Corporate bullshit as a communication method

A propaganda war of elite with rank-in-file folks

  "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry."

Harry G. Frankfurt,

Corporate BS a dominant method of communication in large corporations. Urban Dictionary defines  corporate bullshit  the following way:

A new language that looks and sounds just like English, but is actually lies and propaganda spewed forth by big corporations that just want people to be good consumers and give them their money.

Often accompanied by Legalesein barely readable fine print, or spoken rapidly.

Should you send a complaint to a big corporation, you can expect to be handed back a sheet of paper with corporate bullshit on it.

"Reebok cares about young athletes, our products are designed to help you achieve your goals."

"We at microsoft are always working to ensure that users get the most from their computers"

It is not entirely new phenomenon, but it lately became pervasive and all-encompassing method of communication used in corporate environment.  It's all about spin and there are several different flavors with the two main:

The term itself conveys that same semantic that a more modern term "corporate communication" means in less offensive manner. John Kay called it is an empty language for empty-headed executives. But it is probably more complex phenomenon then just that. Looks like both politicians and the corporate brass are legitimately afraid to talk to "proles" and the society and need BS as a lubricant.  The assumption is that the objects, the prols (and the society as a whole) are a bunch of brain-dead, totally clueless, apathetic schmucks, which can "eat"  any meaningless collection of words or sounds presented, no matter how devoid of any useful info, absurd or ridiculous. And if they can recognize what is politely called "spin", so be it. We have as one Amazon commenter put it

...a culture pervaded by spin and spin doctors, self-serving political pundits, dubious and unscientific beliefs, subjective bias masquerading as objective truth, hypocritical hornblowing hacks with hidden agendas, masterfully manipulative, mudslinging muckrakers of mass deception...

Recently several books on the topic were published.  Professor Frankfurt, pointed in his tiny book on the subject that BS is about manipulating perception of what is said ("getting away with what he says"). It is an art of manipulating people's behavior in organizations and corporations to get the desirable for BS artist outcome. In other words, BS is a vulgar name for corporate propaganda. As we all know, the latter is often worse then outright lie. And its dominance means that we are living in the Age of Spin where political, social and technological issues are manipulated and distorted according to the desired for the elite end rather than for their real truth or validity.  That creates a certain danger for society and is a sign of decay and degradation of social structure both in society and corporations.

As such BS is typically a deceptive misrepresentation, typically using pretentious words (such as "Your call is important to us", "corporate vision", "right-sourcing", "team", "game-changing", see Corporate Bullshit Generator). Being a propaganda it is directed to spinning the audience in the direction the BS artist desire. There is a fuzzy line between hiding or distorting the truth (liar) vs. presenting one side of the story and ignoring the truth altogether (BS artist). Or masking both the truth and the real intention. According to Wikipedia (Propaganda):

Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of the community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes.

As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented.

The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political, religious or commercial agenda. Propaganda can be used as a form of ideological or commercial warfare.

Propaganda is a form of ideological or commercial warfare. It is also related to the concept of corporate psychopath (see The psychopath in the corner office): insincerity is the hallmark of this pathology. Their personality attributes include "superficial charm, unreliability, untruthfulness, and insincerity, [a] lack of guilt, remorse, or shame" as well as pathological lying, egocentricity and selfishness. In short, the same traits as any BS artist.

In his short book "On Bullshit" (which was first published as an article and is available for free from linguistik.tu-berlin.de ) Professor of Princeton. university, a philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt tried to point some distinctions between lying and "BSing",  but I am unconvinced with his line of thinking and find it not only simplistic, but factually wrong (for example, lying by omission is still lying). The key problem with his views is that he does not understand a close relation between BS and corporate propaganda.

Instead of this simple definition (BS=propaganda), Frankfurt  tries to impose an artificial and arbitrary distinction along the following lines: the liar's focus is external; he lies to avoid the consequences of truth, or to enjoy the benefits of conscious deception. Both motivations require an awareness and appreciation of the truth. The BS artist focus is more on spinning the audience in the necessary direction. But in no way propaganda is completely different to "ends justifying means" paradigm of liar. In both case the goal is to obscure the reality to make the achievement of particular goals possible,m truth be damned. Or in more modern terms,  both try to to create "an artificial reality", as in "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." (Attributed to Karl Rove). In a narrow sense BS is about hiding real intentions and/or level of knowledge (own incompetence), imitating fake sincerity or some combination of thereof.  

In other words, the BSer's focus is on misrepresenting both himself/herself and the reality. Contrary to Frankfurt views, that does not exclude outright lying, although skillful propagandist tries to use it as the weapon of last resort. It also involves a false pretence of knowledge (TV pundits is a classic example here), of sincerity, or care ("I feel you pain"), etc.  In narrow sense that Frankfurt defines it, BS is closely related to bluffing: 

"B.S. is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of B.S. is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled - whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others - to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant."

In this situation a BS artist typically tries to appear sincere and knowledgeable where in reality he/she is neither. According to the author, the very lack of sincerity is a great danger. Frankfurt thinks that the key reason of proliferation of BS today is that the notion of honesty and truth has been replaced by a belief in the importance of creation of the illusion of knowledge and sincerity ( along the lines of Machiavelli recommendation for prince, or Taleyrand quote "Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts").  As John Kay noted (An empty language for empty-headed executives; 12 July 2005, Financial Times):

But in more broad meaning of corporate propaganda is based on a skillful manipulation of the capabilities of human language, using it as a tool of misinforming people, hiding the real picture, instead of illuminating it. 

When George Orwell wrote his magisterial essay on Politics and the English Language in 1946, public 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. In the last year, books by the Australian writer, Don Watson, the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s, and my colleague Lucy Kellaway have attempted, in very different ways, to dissect this phenomenon.

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. 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. The repetition of stock phrases which can be parroted without thought – change drivers, organizational 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, but describe concepts too nebulous to be expressed by terms with known meaning. Bullshit is characterized by prolixity – “serving customers better” becomes “striving for continuous improvement in the customer relationship management space”.

XXI century can probably be called "the age of disinformation", although the process started long ago with the first totalitarian regimes in  Italy, Germany and Russia. In this sense the cold war was won by the USSR, because one of the most despicable features of the regime -- complete vacation from truth by mainstream press -- is now almost completely replicated in western countries. It is not accidental that a nickname for BBC is British Bullshit Corporation.  It is also typical in the dynamics of power in large global corporations. In "The Fable of the Sharks" by Eduard Gracia noted:

"For each and every one of us who try to make a living in this our uncertain world, the most insidious if not the biggest danger is that of failing to distinguish between fact and "BS", between information and manipulation."

If you are alarmed the proliferation of BS in our culture today and legions of BS artists in mass media, political scene and corporate environment, who are constantly painting pictures. which have only a tangential connection to reality, you are not alone.   Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, put his finger on the Bush administration's particular style of lying years ago:

If the truth was too precious to waste on politics for Bush I and a challenge to overcome for Clinton, for our current George Bush it is simply boring and uncool. Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered.

Each new Congress, each new administration is clearly more bullshit-heavy than its predecessors.

The danger of brainwashing

Like any propaganda the key danger of constant BS is brainwashing. The quantity eventually turns in quality.  If left unaddressed, bullshit leads to such an altered perception of reality that we will not know what reality is. In some way being indifferent to the truth could be worse than being opposed to the truth. In other words corporate propaganda involves more profound manipulation of the reality then the outright lying. It creates and maintains an alternative reality, the feat which surprisingly is typical for totalitarian societies and theocracies.

Few would think about Nazism as the purveyor of BS, but Frankfurt analysis makes this line thinking entirely logical.  Here is a Hermann Göring quote(Wikiquote):

Göring: Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country

The same was actually true about Bolshevism, which was infused with propaganda that nobody has had taken seriously and still that was force fed by all communication channels. While BS is more easily detectable than a lie, at least from a common man perspective, it is much more dangerous as it acts as opium, anesthetizing us to the cruelty and absurdity of the reality. And this actually is what corporate management and party leaders want. In a way, the psychology of the BS artist is the psychology of a corporate executive or party functionary, or more correctly a corporate psychopath.

Faking reality

The key trick that bullshit artists use is to impress the listener (or the reader) with words that communicate an impression that something is being or has been done, words that might be true or false, but which directed at obscuring the situation,  the facts of the matter being discussed. In other words “the bullshitter is faking reality

This line thinking was well described in NYT review of his book (Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity, February 14, 2005):

Harry G. Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in the publishing house's distinguished history to carry a title most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print. The work is called "On Bull - - - - ."

The opening paragraph of the 67-page essay is a model of reason and composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry."

... ... ...

What is [bull], after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth.

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth," Mr. Frankfurt writes. "A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it."

The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or falsehood. The only thing that matters to him is "getting away with what he says," Mr. Frankfurt writes. An advertiser or a politician or talk show host given to [bull] "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it," he writes. "He pays no attention to it at all."

And this makes him, Mr. Frankfurt says, potentially more harmful than any liar, because any culture and he means this culture rife with [bull] is one in danger of rejecting "the possibility of knowing how things truly are." It follows that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or commercial appeal is only as legitimate, and true, as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.

The reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance. "All that is solid," as Marx once wrote, "melts into air."

... ... ...

..."I used the title I did," he added, "because I wanted to talk about [bull] without any [bull], so I didn't use 'humbug' or 'bunkum.' "

Research was a problem. The closest analogue came from Socrates.

"He called it rhetoric or sophistry," Mr. Frankfurt said, "and regarded philosophy as the great enemy of rhetoric and sophistry."

"These were opposite, incompatible ways of persuading people," he added. "You could persuade them with rhetoric" - or [bull] - "with sophistic arguments that weren't really sound but that you could put over on people, or you could persuade them by philosophical arguments which were dedicated to rigor and clarity of thought."

... ... ...

"Why," he wondered, "do we respond to [bull] in such a different way than we respond to lies? When we find somebody lying, we get angry, we feel we've been betrayed or violated or insulted in some way, and the liar is regarded as deceptive, deficient, morally at fault."

Why we are more tolerant of [bull] than lying is something Mr. Frankfurt believes would be worth considering.

"Why is lying regarded almost as a criminal act?" he asked, while bull "is sort of cuddly and warm? It's outside the realm of serious moral criticism. Why is that?"

One of the most telling signs of bullshit is twisting of the language. Even if you are in a technical position, you may still find yourself dealing with sales people and other corporate types. You may also discover that they speak a different language and use an arsenal of corny phrases that might just give you the hives. Below are some samples of "corporate bullshit" (see Dictionary of corporate bullshit):



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