Thursday, January 6, 2011

Buzzwords and Bullshit.

The real problem with buzzwords isn’t that they’re completely meaningless. If they actually were completely meaningless, they’d never have become buzzwords in the first place. The problem arises from the fact that they have become  semantically bleached — stripped of meaning — in common usage. They are still treated as meaningful in two cases: by the usually very small minority of people who do know what they really mean and can competently use them, and by the unfortunately larger group of people who want to appear to know what they mean.

The problem then manifests when the people in the latter group try to interact with people who aren’t in either group. This often comes up in a teaching environment — both in schools and elsewhere — especially where the person or group who prepared the course is not the person teaching it. They know that this buzzword is involved somehow, that it means something relevant to the course, because it was mentioned dozens of times when they learned it. Unfortunately, concepts have a tendency to seem as self-evident as they are simple once we genuinely internalise them. Their original teacher, even if he did understand the concept itself, probably considered it more obvious than it was and consequently failed to explain it in adequate detail.

I’ll illustrate with an example that I remember from primary school (it carried over into secondary school too, but wasn’t quite as bad there). A lot of fuss was made about self-esteem. It was apparently a very important thing to have. But as far as my class was concerned, this notion had come out of the blue very suddenly, as fads are wont to do when you’re completely unaware of and uninvolved in the processes that produce them. More problematically, we had no idea what it meant, and nobody’s attempts to explain it left us much the wiser. We hadn’t heard of esteem before, except maybe when I’d listened to old records of the “highly esteemed” Goon Show, which didn’t help me actually understand the word at all.

The best I could gather was that if you were being picked on, it meant you didn’t have enough self-esteem, although if you were picking on people, that also meant that you didn’t have enough self-esteem. I tried again and figured out that self-esteem meant being assertive without picking on people. (I had never conflated those two things in the first place, although everyone seemed to assume that all the kids had. As far as I could tell, you picked on someone either because you were mates, or because you were a coward; you could tell which sort a particular case was by noting if it was reciprocated.) So I tried to put that into practice and assert myself, to claim some sort of identity for myself. Yet when I did, the one teacher who seemed so obsessed with the word in the first place would put me down herself.

Years later, I gradually pieced together what self-esteem was supposed to mean, and I figured out a few things that it certainly wasn’t. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could just tell people they should have. Certainly you couldn’t just tell people that they needed to have it to be worthwhile (which was more or less the impression we got in school), and that if they were in any of these fairly common situations then they didn’t have enough. I’m sure it did far more damage to a significant number of kids than schoolyard bullying itself, as it’s the sort of psychological process that is self-perpetuating. The sheer irony of how counterproductive such an approach actually is depresses me. Not only that — it now seems so obvious to me how counterproductive it is.

From this, it’s quite obvious now that none of my primary teachers — certainly not the one who actually drummed the buzzword into us — were actually competent at understanding the concept and its implications. This may have been their own fault, or (given how systemic their failure was) the fault of their own sources and teachers; the effect on the students would have been no different. That’s why it was a buzzword: not because it wasn’t meaningful, but because people pretended it was. Buzzwords are neither falsehoods nor lies, but they are most definitely bullshit.

1 comment:

  1. I think you still have my Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbooks. The one for "Work has an office Bingo chart with buzzwords to listen out for during meetings.