I am easily enraged by bullshit.

The form of bullshit that I find most frustrating is management speak, the brand of gobbledygook so effectively skewered by Don Watson. Management speak is that gangly amalgam of pop psychology, needless jargon and weasel words that is used to dress up empty, verbless sludge to sound as if it means something.  It’s soul-deadeningly ubiquitous, and it sometimes seems as if there’s no escape.

The ABC has been a haven from the ever-encroaching scourge of dead language. No longer.

Today, the Drum published a dense slab of management consultant jargon, an outstanding example of the genre. It was about “sustainability”, a word which apparently posseses a radically different meaning than the word “sustainable”.  This could have come from the pages of Watson’s Weasel Words:

If sustainability is fully planned and implemented, it drives a bottom-line strategy to save costs and a top-line strategy to reach new consumers while creating employment. It also drives a talent strategy to get, keep, and develop both employees and network partnerships with the community and stakeholders. It protects nature, without compromising people’s welfare. Combining the SEEC principles can lead any situation positively, because it looks at the whole picture.

Wow.

The author is apparently the head of a “a strategic advisory that helps businesses create value through sustainability management”. This involves, among other things, informing businesses that sustainability “means operating profitably”, a message I’m sure they’re pleased to hear. I don’t want to be too harsh on the author; she may well have some genuine insights behind that smokescreen of corporate babble, and I’m sure she means well, but I can’t take it anymore.

It occurred to me that “sustainability” has reached the limits of its usefulness as a term, now that it simultaneously seems to mean everything and nothing. This led me to ponder the cycle of ideas and terms, the process by which new concepts or phrases come to rise and fall in our public language.

I think it goes something like this:

  1. New phenomenon is observed, new perspective advocated or new argument advanced. This leads to the adoption of a new term, like ‘sustainability’, ‘the third way’, ‘Web 2.0’, ‘stakeholder’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘the triple bottom line’, ‘social inclusion’, etc.;
  2. The new phenomenon, argument or perspective is found useful by academics, who proceed to debate, discuss and study its implications;
  3. Think tanks or advocacy groups pick up on the academic arguments;
  4. Policymakers pursue reforms that use the new language, often perverting the original academics’ findings; and then
  5. Management consultants scoop up the scraps of the now-fading intellectual fashion and sell the jargon to gullible executives and boards.

That’s not to say that these terms don’t retain some important meaning. ‘Web 2.0′, for example, still means something. The move to a more interactive, real-time internet is an important social change with wide-ranging implications. But the considered, important discussions of the concept risk being buried amongst the vapid talk of “leveraging social media to enact corporate missions” and the like.

‘Social exclusion’ (and its corollary, ‘social inclusion’) is another concept that I think is quite useful, despite others’ cynicism. It refers to a broader conception of relative poverty, one that includes material deprivation, but also other kinds of deprivation and exclusion. Again, the concept’s usefulness is in danger of being slowly poisoned by a tendency to stretch its definition and use it serve any political or rhetorical purpose . It is reaching stage 5 of the process of decay.

We’re drowning in bullshit, and I don’t know how to make it stop.