Saturday, March 23, 2013

Of Nameless Nonsense and Naked Emperors

When I write these posts, I usually spend a couple of days writing down the things I want to talk about (as they pop randomly into my head), and then sit down and arrange them into a rough outline before I start writing. But this time I'm skipping the outline, because I can't seem to arrange my thoughts into a coherent form. Sometimes you don't really know what you think until you sit down and write about it for a while. Which is one of the reasons I have this blog.

Anyway, this post is going to be a little unstructured, because I only have a vague idea of how the things I'm thinking about relate to each other. Worse, there's no word for the category they all fit into. Let me try to explain what those things are, by telling about some recent encounters with them.

I recently went to a conference for librarians. When I got to the hotel, I asked one of guys out front where the parking was. He said, "Oh, it's all valet parking. We'll take your car, sir." I looked at him and thought, "Well, crap." The thing is, I hate valet parking. It's always presented as a helpful, top-shelf service, offered up to make your life easier. But it doesn't. All that happens is some stranger takes your keys from you and whisks your car off to parts unknown. If you leave anything in it, you have to ask a valet to go get it. And then you have to tip him. I hold that valet parking has two purposes, neither of which have anything to do with convenience: 1. Making socially-insecure people feel like they're doing something fancy 2. Making money.

After the valet had careened out of sight in my car, I wrestled my bags back from a bellboy that wanted to carry them, headed up to my room, and sat down in an elegantly excruciating chair to look over the conference program. It was packed with ads from vendors and corporate sponsors, and for some reason, this reminded me of the valet parking. Professional conferences, I thought, can be a lot like valet parking: they don't necessarily serve the purpose they claim to serve. People think of them as a way to meet other professionals and share ideas (or to get drunk, hook up, and go sight-seeing). And they are all these things. But they're also a way for vendors to try to sell you things, and to get your contact information so they can bug you later. Conferences also seem to be big moneymakers for the organizations that sponsor them. In the case of libraries, they charge the librarians (who already pay yearly dues) to go to the conference, and they also charge the vendors big bucks for the best spots to set up their booths. And then they sell ads in the program.

Even the people attending the conference aren't there for the reasons they might claim. They aren't just there to share information and build professional networks. The people giving presentations, for example, aren't just trying to share what they've learned. They're giving a talk at the conference because it looks good on their resume. Sometimes it's based on a paper they wrote. And why did they write it? Because it looks good on their resume. Or they need to get published if they want tenure (academic librarian jobs are often tenure-track). Maybe they also did it because they had something valuable to contribute, but anybody who has read many academic papers, or sat through many conference presentations, will know that's not always the case.

These were my thoughts as I sat there reading that program. But then I remembered why I was there (or did I?) and decided to go to a keynote speech by a mover and shaker in the library world. The talk lasted about 45 minutes, and to be honest, I can't remember just what it was about. But I do know she was a great believer in "going forward" and "reaching out", and that she used the word "conversation" at least 35 times in 45 minutes. She seems to know what she's doing, too, so my money is on "conversation" as the go-to buzzword in the coming year. If you want to get ahead in 2013, don't say "let's talk about that". Say "we need to have a conversation about that". "Conversation" is the new "leverage". It will take you far.

I don't mean to sound too cynical about conferences, much less librarians, most of whom really do want to help people. It's just that librarians--like members of every other subculture--have their fads and bandwagons. One way of showing you are on a particular bandwagon, or that you belong to a particular subculture, is to use its buzzwords. As my friends and coworkers will tell you, I have a bit of a thing about buzzwords. I hate them. Corporate-speak, education-speak, bureaucratese, technobabble and psychobabble; they irritate me to no end. But it's not just a mindless peeve. They grate on me because I'm a passionate believer that people should think for themselves, and think about what they are saying. If people are using faddish buzzwords, that tells me they're doing neither. Instead, they're acting like a talking herd animal, sort of a cross between a parrot and a lemming. They're not thinking. They're imitating.

Some of those buzzwords don't really mean anything at all, but they serve a purpose nonetheless. They show that the person saying them is part of the in-crowd, and up on the latest, trends. They also seem to inspire a certain kind of impressionable person, so they get plastered all over educational manifestos and corporate websites. And conference programs. Buzzwords have some nastier cousins, too. Things like euphemisms, weasel words, loaded language, and vague or impenetrable language--like buzzwords, they have a purpose other than clear, honest communication. But these can be used to obscure and distort the truth. As George Orwell put it in his important essay Politics and the English Language, this kind of language "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

So, how did I get from valet parking to buzzwords? The point I'm trying to make is that people are always saying, doing, and believing things not because they are true or useful, but because they serve some other purpose, which usually has to do with money, in-group identification, or both. That's what ties together valet parking, resume-padding professional activities, buzzwords, catchphrases, and all kinds of other things people do without stopping to think about why they're doing them. There's a disconnect between the assumed purpose of the words, ideas, or activities and their actual purpose. Sometimes they have no purpose at all, except that they have caught on, and people will feel like they're out of touch if they don't do them.

This is a problem, because doing things that are, at best, useless, is a waste of best. Life is just too short for that nonsense. But it's hard to speak clearly about the problem, because that there's no standard term that describes this category of things. There's no widely-known conceptual framework for understanding what they are, and how they relate to each other.

Personally, I tend to relate them to the Hans Christian Anderson story The Emperor's New Clothes--surely as wise a fable as has ever been told. If you haven't read it in a while, here's a refresher. Two swindlers convince an emperor that they can make him a wondrous set of clothes. These clothes will make him invisible to stupid or incompetent people, and in fact, the clothes themselves will be invisible to such people. The swindlers get their looms and go to work, pretending to spin and weave. When the emperor and his ministers come to check on their progress, each of them realizes with horror he can't see the clothes. But of course they all keep their mouths shut, so everyone thinks everyone else can see the clothes. Finally, the emperor strips, dons his new, invisible finery, and parades down the street. None of his subjects says a word, because they've all heard that stupid people can't see the clothes, and's the emperor! It takes a little boy to point out the obvious: "But he's not wearing any clothes at all!"

I love that story, because it seems to me that a whole lot of the things people take seriously in this world are just different styles of imperial non-clothing. They're just...made up. They don't serve any purpose, or not the purpose people think they serve. But people believe in them, and therefore we all have to spend a lot of energy dealing with them. The naked emperor holds up non-existent hoops, and makes us all jump through them.

As insightful as the story is, though, it doesn't give us a good word for this kind of nonsense--this misplaced importance we give to things that may not even be real or true or valuable. Saying "that sounds like the emperor's new clothes" is just too wordy. Other options--bullshit--for example, aren't precise enough and may not be socially acceptable, despite their clear usefulness. Also insufficient are the various terms for pointless activities (jumping through hoops, going through the motions), and the necessary multitude of terms for pointless or misleading language (cant, bafflegab, blather, drivel, verbiage, twaddle, buzzwords, codswallop, weasel words, euphemisms, loaded language, purr words and snarl words, lip service, etc). There's no term that draws all these things together in one basket and gives us a handle to carry it with.

We need one. We need a word that lets us identify this stuff to each other, so we can try to root it out. We need to be able to point to empty buzzwords and activities done for the sake of appearances, and say "Hold on, that's _______!" I'm not suggesting we use such a word as a thought-terminating cliche, along the lines of the current usage of "class warfare". The word should promote critical thinking, not shush it. We need a good word for describing things that are useless or worse. We need a word that reminds us it's time to look around and see if we're on a bandwagon, and to check whether the driver is wearing any clothes.

Such a word might remind people to spend more time asking questions like: "That word you keep saying: what does it actually mean?", and "How do you know that's true?", and "Does this idea really do anything useful, or is it just fashionable?", and "Is this crap really necessary?" What, in other words, is the actual point of this thing we are talking about? Of course, such a word should itself be watched closely, so it doesn't turn into another meaningless buzzword, emptied of all meaning. That would be ironic, but not unprecedented. After all, "drink the kool-aid" began as a clever, if tasteless, metaphor for the dangers of blind conformity. Now it's become an overworked corporate tic, and the only people who can sincerely say "don't drink the kool-aid" in 2013 have, in fact, drank the kool-aid.

The reason we need this word, and the reason people should ask these questions, is that even though the emperor's new clothes don't actually exist, they still manage to do real harm, because people believe in them. Think about how many people spend big chunks of their lives doing things for the sole purpose of padding their resumes: joining committees they don't have time for (and possibly aren't even needed), writing papers that don't advance knowledge a single step, giving talks nobody really listens to, and so on. Parents push their kids to take on too many extracurricular activities, for the same reason. Some people waste their precious days in other ways, but still for the sake of appearances. Does anybody buy a Cadillac Escalade, for example, to actually take off road? No, because that's not what it's for. An Escalade is for showing people that you drive an Escalade. And then there's the stuff people believe in, that just isn't true. How many people have devoted their lives to forgotten religions that nobody believes in anymore? How many people were murdered for questioning those forgotten, non-existent gods?

The common denominator of all these things is that they involve mistaking appearances for substance or ideas for reality, and that people do them without stopping to ask why. They "give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

If it's true that nonexistent imperial clothing causes trouble, so do the naked emperors themselves.  Some people make a whole career out of imperial nakedness. In fact, maybe "naked" isn't a strong enough word. As Lewis Grizzard said, "'Naked' means you ain't got no clothes on. 'Nekkid' means you ain't got no clothes on and you're up to something." These people are full-on nekkid. Those who learn to manipulate language and appearances, and make others believe in things that aren't really there, can become extremely powerful, and often quite destructive. They may actually believe their own nonsense--they probably think they're really wearing clothes--but that's beside the point. The point is that they're hawking nonsense and people are wasting their lives buying it. Skilled naked emperors go far, because we take them seriously. For example, the speaker I saw at the conference, who kept saying "conversation", is pretty powerful in her world. She may mean well, and she may even be doing a lot of good, but I can't help thinking that part of the reason she rose to the top of her field is that she's good at keeping up appearances--at joining the right committees and throwing around the right buzzwords. Lots of powerful people--politicians, university presidents, corporate heads--have an intuitive sense of managing perception. Maybe my view is jaundiced, but many of the ones I've met strike me as soulless phonies; "perma-grin zombies", I call them. You can go a long way by being a soulless phony--a nekkid emperor--if people are gullible enough to think they're admiring your clothes, instead of staring at your bare backside.

How do we respond to all this imperial nakedness, and even outright nekkidness? By not putting up with it. By teaching kids to ask tough questions about whether conventional wisdom is true, and whether common practice makes sense. If society has made up various types of nonsense, it will take a society-wide movement to un-make it. When questioning and critical thinking fail, satire is a time-honored method of dealing with nonsense. My whole point here, after all, is that nonsense should not be taken seriously, and nothing deflates a bloated sense of importance like laughter. Naked emperors, in other words, deserve to be mooned. As Orwell says about bloated, insincere language (just one variety of imperial nakedness): "One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase...into the dustbin where it belongs".

So how about it? What are we going to call this stuff, so we can actually talk about how to rid of it?

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