The 1966 Spring/Summer (special) issue of Social Text, an academic, “fashionable American cultural studies journal”, featured an article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravidity”. It was written by Alan Sokal, a professor of Physics at New York University.
The whole article was written by linking absurd arguments, using, to say the least, unclear or inaccurate terminology and drawing conclusions from totally irrational thought pathways. But it was happily published. Once that had happened (to Sokal’s astonishment) he went public declaring that the dammed thing was a hoax!
Actually he said: ‘[it was]a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics’
He had shown, through what he called an “unorthodox and admittedly uncontrolled experiment”, that one can get away with almost anything in these times of cultural fashion and questionable judgement.
The debate had just started. From the front pages of The New York Times to The International Herald Tribune, the British Observer and the French Le Monde, all carried the news of the hoax. But things were not going the be left like that. What started as a contained provocation soon extended to the broader issue of the use of pseudo-sophisticated language borrowed from contemporary physics and mathematics and applied to social.
What next? A book, first in French and then in English. “Intellectual Impostures”, ( Profile Books, 1998), was written by Sokal with the friendly help of Jean Bricmont, another professor of Physics, this time from Europe (Louvain, Belgium). This book is a devastating criticism on “la crème de la crème” of (mainly but not only) French intellectuals and their use of scientific terms that they never understood to pontificate on psychological/social/linguistic/political issues.
As somebody trained in Psychiatry, I had a great time reading the chapter on the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who used mathematical terminology ad libitum to talk about psychological and linguistic topics. When student, I never understood a word of what Lacan had written. For a long time I had declared myself the holder of a second-hand brain unable to grasp intellectual constructs of the likes of Lacan’s. Sokal and Bricmont wrote glorious lines on him and redeemed me.
We have in business our own “Sokal syndrome”, inundated by jargon and often meaningless terminology. The advantage is that the guru-jargon is less pretentious and one can spot pret-a-porter garbage easier without spending a lot of time debating whether or not the problem is in your genetically limited brain. In other words, the hesitation is usually shorter, sometimes of a nanosecond magnitude. I want to propose that one of the primary roles of the modern business leader should be to uncover intellectual nudity. And we have a lot of that around, so many people freezing to death with no clothes on!
Word playing and permutation is of course not the patrimony of business jargon. This seems to have a natural home in politics (this statement being in itself a politically incorrect one, qualification that has never prevented me from saying what I think). In a previous British general election, the following was a highlight in one of the camps, taken from a major presentation and declaration of intentions: “The power of all for the good of each, ours is the passion allied with reason”. Which it is great, because one could even get the order wrong in the reading or listening and still get “a message”. Was it “the power of each for the good of all” or “the power of passion of each, allied to reason, for the good of all”, or “the passion of all for the good of reason?” The speaker became weeks later the next British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair.
Avoid people wearing the latest a pret-a-porter rhetoric.
I don’t know whether you have noticed it. Perfect reasonable people who are fathers or mothers and behave normally over week-ends, speaking their mother tongue and talking properly to other people at the supermarket checkout, become aliens on Monday morning when they get to the office. At the first coffee by the photocopy machine, strange terminology takes over and the reign of “bottom lines”, “net-net” and “closer to the customer” starts.
If you are interviewing somebody who says to you that “he wishes to come aboard because he wants to contribute to your customer driven strategy and make a difference in your bottom line through clear vision and enhancement of your shareholder value”, call 999 (or the equivalent) There is always a psychiatrist on call. In the past, people have been detained for less than that.
Don’t tolerate mind pollution. You may be one of those who are careful about fresh air, perhaps like to walk in the countryside and would hate to be in a car queue inhaling all those fumes in front of your nose. It is bad for your body – you just avoid it. You just don’t expose yourself or your children to polluted air. Period. What you may not realise is that this is nothing compared with the jargon pollution that is impacting on your brain. Avoid mental pollution as you would do with the rest . Hire people who have a reasonable command of their mother tongue and show no signs of alien contamination.
Don’t hire airport-business school graduates. These are the ones who have read the 5 laws of empowerment and the 10 habits of the successful manager in the way to Chicago and think that they deserve an MBA for that. Get on board people who can exercise judgement and speak to you with the same language they speak to their spouse in the evening (that is, when managers become normal people again). I have had managers coming to me for a 20 minute meeting starting with “well, the 3 things I want to achieve today from this meeting are”. All that, just as a starter and almost without a “good morning”. I said to one of them, “ please, relax, it is OK, no need to show me a categorical, numerical, ordinal world of 1,2,3; when you go home, do you really say, “darling, the three things I want to achieve tonight are?” The guy laughed, and then we had a normal conversation.
Business dynamics and their theoretical/applied pillars (organisational architecture and development, HR, strategy-systems-structure setting, operational practices…) need strong cultivation of judgement + plain English. If what is needed is to shout “le roi est nu” ( which is the shorter French version of “emperor has no clothes”) so be it. Somebody in the payroll may need to stand up and proclaim; “My dear guru who is influencing our current rhetoric and business practices, you have the intellectual strength of a cream cake. Thanks for your contributions. I am going to exercise what is left of my brain”. It may be just one of these revolutionary behaviours that could make the difference …
PS. This is part of an article I wrote and published in 2002. Tell me how much things have changed 13 years later.