verbal junk food

This might be one of my new favorite terms:

verbal junk food, providing satisfaction without nourishment.

It’s from Michael and Ellen Kaplan’s  book Bozo Sapiens: Why to err is human.

Here is one of their examples from the business world:

“Going forward, we proactively accelerate our balance sheet through bottom-up empowerment in strategic alliances”

“…the authors presumably had some vague ‘truth’ in mind: there was something they meant to say but only they know what it is.

The second innovation, well defined by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is bullshit – that is, a statement whose author has no interest in whether it’s true or not, nor even whether it is taken to be true. It’s just a warm pile of words, used to soothe opposition, enhance the speaker’s image, or point out his allegiance to some generic good cause – offering hearers the emotional component of thought without troublesome meaning; verbal junk food, providing satisfaction without nourishment.”

In some of my early posts I have pointed to some language issues in the wild salmon discussion and debates – such as bullshit bumpf, bafflegab, and the likes. As one person has commented on one of my posts, “language is meant to communicate not to confuse.”

Or, as I quoted Alan Webber from his book in a previous post:

If you think learning your vocabulary words doesn’t make a difference, try going into a store and asking for toilet paper when you only know the word for sandpaper

Webber’s highschool German teacher Roy Battenberg

Now several of my posts have pointed to language used by bureaucracies such as Fisheries and Oceans and specifically, the “warm pile of words, used to soothe opposition” that make up the Wild Salmon Policy.Yet, advocacy organizations are just as guilty. The problem that arises is that the language has become such junk food that it’s like looking for dinner when you’re only option is going to a 7-11 corner store. Junk food is all there is.

Here are some examples from wild salmon-related reports I downloaded off a major British Columbia environmental organization website (David Suzuki Foundation) of which the title to the paper is a mouthful in itself: “Knowledge integration in salmon conservation and sustainability planning“.

Escalated dysfunction and compromised success can be avoided if variations in ways of knowing are mutually acknowledged and understood.

Is this a tag line for Viagra or Cialis?

Or, is this statement suggesting exactly what I have been raising in various posts – language and words matter. For example, if we bat around words like “conservation” or “sustainability” or “stewardship” – there will many different ways of ‘understanding’ what those words mean.

Say for example in the tar sands operations of Alberta. All three of those words are going to have very different meanings to:

  • a Suncor executive,
  • a Fort Chipewyan elder, and
  • a Greenpeace campaigner.

Does this mean that if these three individuals “mutually acknowledge” the “variations in ways of knowing and understanding” that we will avoid erec… er…  “escalated dysfunction and compromised success”?

And could you imagine using this type of language in a kindergarten class? “Now kids you are compromising our success because of our escalated dysfunction in arriving at mutual acknowledgement”

Or even at a standard workplace where conflict often happens?

(And please, I mean no disrespect towards the authors or organizations highlighted in posts – simply attempting to be hard on the problem, not the people – and it’s only fair to try and spread that focus around).

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