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The business of bullshit

An early contender for euphemism of the year has to be the statement from Aubrey McClendon, chief executive of energy company Chesapeake, who earlier this week said that he was standing down over “philosophical differences” with the board.

An early contender for euphemism of the year has to be the statement from Aubrey McClendon, chief executive of energy company Chesapeake, who earlier this week said that he was standing down over “philosophical differences” with the board.

This brings to mind some interesting images of their board-meetings – had they perhaps fallen out over their interpretation of Kant’s Second Antinomy? Got into a table-banging row over the tenability of Anomalous Monism as a solution to the mind-body problem? Alas no. It seems that, in fact, the shareholders are miffed that McClendon took out over $1 billion in loans against his personal stake in the firm’s oil wells. The differences sound philosophical in the sense that the differences that cause a band’s break-up are musical (that usually means that the bass-player is having sex with the singer’s girlfriend).

We are in a golden age of euphemism, an age of government “austerity” (cuts), “downsizing” (more cuts), “deficit reduction”, “efficiency” and “reform” (even more cuts). Business, of course, is in on the act. “Consolidation” (firing people) and “rightsizing” (firing more people) are all the rage. One business recently revealed that last year’s earnings “de-grew” by 23%.

Sometimes euphemism can be sweet, for example the British small business’s ongoing love-affair with the word “solutions”, as in “storage solutions” (boxes), “building solutions” (building), or the mysterious British Business Solutions (it does telemarketing). This is now reaching neurotic heights, as if every firm wishes it did something more grandiose than it does. A business in the town where I live sells “sensor solutions” (sensors).

This seems to me badly misdirected energy. The business is called SICK and their building has that word written on it in huge letters, which must be almost as demoralising for employees as working for the American law-firm Payne & Fears.

Some of this love of euphemism, I am sure, comes from some businesspeople’s bizarre self-identification with all-things military. (Show me a chief executive with a copy of The Art of War on his bookshelves, and I will show you somebody who “de-grows”.)

This has reached some sort of apogee with the IED, an abbreviation of improvised explosive device, itself a euphemism for a bomb. It’s a euphemism squared, for goodness sake. Even worse is the British Army’s Future Rapid Effects System, the name for its plan to buy new tanks. Start trying to make sense of that and soon you’re so bogged down in jargon that you feel like a monkey trying to read Finnegans Wake.

A lot of this stuff is what is technically known to philosophers as “bullshit”, following the classic book On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. Lying is different to bullshit, Frankfurt says, because liars know the truth and deliberately try to cover it up. They care enough about the truth to disguise it. Bullshitters, on the other hand, show an “indifference to how things really are” – they don’t care about truth, they only really want to tell a nice-sounding story. Sounds familiar. Perhaps “euphemism” is itself a euphemism. Let’s call a thing what it is.

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