Thursday, 22 December 2016
I wish to confess a favourite fantasy. I have always dreamed of having a huge wall-mounted neon sign that could be programmed to flash the word “Bullshit!” whenever it heard certain words or expressions. Naturally the triggers would be chosen and pre-loaded by me. I call them (unimaginatively) bullshit indicators. No bullshit indicator is infallible but some go pretty close.
I first developed this fantasy in the late 1970s when I worked in the Victorian Public Service. It was the word “community” that first got my goat. It began appearing in the titles of lobby groups which exemplified what has been defined as the arrogance of the social worker: “I’m here on earth to help others. What the others are here for I don’t know.” Reflecting on the usages of “community” led me to generalise about language usage in public discourse and I concluded that to find the intention behind public language go first to its opposite. “Corrections” in the title of an institution means, inevitably, “punishing while making no effort to correct”. “Community” pretends to describe a grass roots movement. In fact it almost always refers to something imposed on the grass roots by elements of the half-educated middle class. My favourite American, HL Mencken, said “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”
These days I think the most blatant and widespread bullshit indicator is “natural”. It is used to describe everything from laundry detergents, to quack remedies and is always a lie if only because it implies an absolutely false distinction between “things produced by human agency” and “things produced by non-human agency”. Thus today’s Greenshirts are guilty of the same anthropocentrism that they accuse everyone else of. More guilty, in fact. Cholera is natural. Leprosy, cancer, anencephaly, malaria, murder, rape, the Liberal Party, AIDS, Redcraze’s defeat in the 1956 Melbourne Cup - all occurred in nature. In fact nothing can occur out of nature. If it exists it is part of the natural world.
My own list of bullshit indicators, of course (I nearly wrote “naturally!”) reflects my own prejudices. I would be interested to know what words serve as similar triggers for other people.