The new Newspeak

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George Orwell dissected the use of language in politics. He would have found a similar target in the language of business.

In one of George Orwell’s finest essays, written just after the Second World War, he dissected the use of language in politics. Politicians and political writers had created a divorce between language and ideas which debased both language and politics. Orwell later created Newspeak, the language of 1984, to show how far this debasement might go.

When Orwell wrote, there was little or no business literature. But today business has taken over as a focus for truly dreadful writing. It is easy to find ludicrous examples but like Orwell I cite cases that are representative rather than extreme. Consider the following passages, both conclusions to widely cited articles:

“Those who hesitate too long before the challenge of globalisation, or fail altogether to respond, face economic jeopardy, or at least substantial loss of competitive position. Those that opt for globalization in good time, position themselves to gain competitive leadership and sustainable increases in returns”

(Facing up to the Globalization Challenge, H Henzler & W Rall, McKinsey Quarterly, Winter 1986)

“Today’s top level managers recognise that the diversity of human skills and the unpredictability of the human spirit makes possible innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. The most basic task of corporate leaders is to recapture these valuable human attributes by individualising the corporation. To do so, they need to adopt a management philosophy that is based on purpose, process and people”.

(CA Bartlett and S Ghoshal, Harvard Business Review, May/June 1995)

Most people would agree with these sentiments. In fact, that is the problem. Are there many people who think that companies should procrastinate indefinitely before the challenge of globalisation? Or who believe that creativity and innovation are promoted by discouraging diversity and squashing the human spirit? This is the kind of writing which Orwell described as “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else… the attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy”.

Penning such passages is like saying “it’s a nice day” to a neighbour. The purpose is not to convey information, or to open debate. These remarks are conversation fillers, designed to bridge an awkward silence or to establish mutual recognition and rapport. These paragraphs have the same quality. We can assent to them without thinking, just as we can acknowledge “it’s a nice day” without giving any attention to the weather at all. Orwell likened this kind of writing to responses in church. We mumble them without any longer recognising the underlying meaning of the words and phrases.

Now turn to these examples.

“To truly exploit the virtual value chain, however, Geffen’s managers might go further by applying the generic value-adding steps of the marketspace to the information the company collects at every stage of the physical chain, thereby creating new value for customers”

(J F Rayport and J J Sviokla – Exploiting the Virtual Value Chain, Harvard Busines Review, Nov/Dec 1995)

“The old ways of doing business – the division of labour around which companies have been organised since Adam Smith first articulated the principle – simply don’t work anymore. Suddenly, the world is a different place. The here and now crisis of competitiveness that American corporations face today is not the result of a temporary economic downturn or of a low point in the business cycle. Indeed, we can no longer even count on a predictable business cycle – prosperity, followed by recession, followed by renewed prosperity – as we once did”

(M Hammer and J Champy, Re-engineering the Corporation, p17)

The central difficulty here is understanding what is meant. These passages are like extracts in a foreign language which you do not speak: the only way you can pass on their content is by repeating them. And for essentially the same reason. We understand language by recognising the concepts which words express. In unknown languages, you find it impossible to connect word to concept. The same is true here. It is as though these paragraphs were written by computer, programmed to write grammatically correct English but with no knowledge of the meaning of English words. Perhaps they were.

Words like re-engineering, downsizing and delayering sound as if they come directly from the dictionary of Newspeak. Words that express genuinely new concepts – like bytes or quarks – have a vitality and imagination that these stale euphemisms lack. And this was Orwell’s key message. The authors he cited did not write badly because they did not know how to express themselves well. They wrote badly because they had nothing to say.

Or, sometimes, because they wished to conceal what they meant. Politics has always abused language in this way. Democracy comes to mean no more than “a system of which I approve”. Fascism is “something which I intensely dislike”. Similarly, empowerment is a positive way of describing one’s relationships with subordinates, hierarchy a negative one. As Orwell explained, such blurring of the meaning of words leads quickly to statements like “the Soviet Union is a true democracy” or, “downsizing is necessary to achieve real job security”. It is the divorce between word and thought which makes it possible to say these things.

There is a role for manipulative language in industry as there is in politics and religion. The chief executive addressing middle managers is performing the same function as the leader at the party conference, the priest at mass, or for that matter the general with his troops or the leaders of a football crowd. Their objectives are to promote group solidarity and practice social control, and the same tricks of ritual, rhetoric and responses apply to each. But none of us should think for a moment that these incantations tell us anything about how to run a business.

Orwell’s clear, direct prose will not instruct you how to do that. But it will help you think, and that is a good start. Next time you visit an airport bookstall, push past the business shelf and pick up a volume of his essays.

[Politics and the English Language (in The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, Penguin, 1984)]

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