Weasel words have teeth to kill great ventures

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Dishonesty of speech quickly leads to dishonesty in behaviour because the language we use governs all we do.

Vaclav Havel, dissident, poet and playwright, was the first post-communist president of the Czech Republic. In a famous essay, The Power of the Powerless, written under Soviet occupation of his country, he described a greengrocer who displayed in his window a sign saying “Workers of the World Unite!”

No one took the content of the declaration seriously – least of all the authorities who provided the sign, who would have been appalled at the prospect that the workers of the world might indeed unite. Czechoslovakia was not an especially brutal tyranny and the greengrocer would probably not have suffered sanctions for failing to give the placard a position of prominence. So what was the purpose of the display? Mr Havel argued that it represented a declaration of conformity. By placing the sign, the greengrocer said: “I do not want trouble.” He was responding to the human desire to avoid confrontation. That signal of compliance was what his rulers sought.

Like George Orwell, Mr Havel described “living within the lie”. Both saw how the dishonesty inherent in such acquiescence ultimately corrupted all aspects of life, personal as well as political. Themselves masters of language, both men understood that the abuse of language was central to that corruption. In 1984, and even more effectively in his essay on political language, Orwell explained how political rhetoric was constructed by sticking together reiterated phrases that had ceased to be connected to their literal meaning.

In western liberal democracies, no one exhibits slogans calling on the workers to unite. But you see similar displays in reception areas of businesses and even in government offices. They urge us to pursue excellence, to delight our customers, to be wholehearted in our embrace of change. Employees place these exhortations on desks and walls with the same resignation as the Czech greengrocer. The modern analogue of the address to the party congress is the business speech, in which tired clichés relentlessly follow each other, to similarly sycophantic applause.

For Orwell, writing in the 1940s, the language of politics was the most debased. But the new political leaders of the west were men such as Harry Truman and Clement Attlee, who spoke plainly because they knew no other vocabulary. In the postwar era, business took over from politics as the theatre of empty rhetoric. More recently, however, government has reimported that style from the private sector. Official documents, once relatively factual statements of situations and policies, are increasingly full of self-congratulation and bogus statistics. They resemble the annual reports of corporations.

Lucy Kellaway, the FT columnist, routinely mocks such nonsense. But, as Orwell and Mr Havel realised, these vapid expressions are not harmless. The objective of the patronising drivel emitted by politicians and business people is to drive out argument. Engaged debate is replaced by what Jack Welch, the former General Electric chief executive, memorably characterised as “superficial congeniality”. Apparent consensus is achieved by euphemism, by avoiding issues of substance and by using slogans instead of analysis.

Mr Welch saw that the opposite of superficial congeniality was “facing reality”. But the effect, and intention, of the tacit compliance involved in superficial congeniality is to entrench a reality of power: to legitimise authority based only on the occupation of positions of authority.

Living within the lie, because it does not face reality, is the process by which great organisations fall into catastrophic errors – and through which they often fail to recognise these errors even after their consequences have become apparent. The self-deception of living within the lie is how banks fell victim to the credit crunch and the US came to be embroiled in Iraq. The greengrocer, and millions like him, perpetuated a great evil by acquiescing in a minor deceit. Dishonesty of speech quickly leads to dishonesty in behaviour because the language we use governs all we do.

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