Books That Teach You How To Draw Fashion People Recognising the Sokal Syndrome

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Recognising the Sokal Syndrome

The spring/summer issue 1996 of Social texta fashionable American journal of cultural studies, featured an article entitled “Transgressing the boundaries: into a transformative hermeneutics of quantumgravity”. Written by Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, it was full of absurdities. proclaimed the most irrational of claims and asserted conclusions of the so-called postmodernist type, that everything is relative (from morality to physics) and science – like everything else – is a social construction.

The entire article was written by stringing together absurd arguments, using vague or imprecise terminology, and drawing conclusions from totally unreasonable lines of thought. But fortunately it was published. When it did, a stunned Sokal went public and declared it a hoax. He had shown – through what he called a “unorthodox and uncontrolled experiment“- that you can get away with almost anything in these times of cultural fashion and questionable judgement.

Covers of New York Times, International Herald TribuneBritain’s Observer and the French Le Monde, all brought news of fraud. But what started as a contained provocation quickly expanded into a debate about the wider issue of using sophisticated language borrowed from contemporary physics and mathematics and applying it to the social sciences – a typical ‘post-modernist’ debate. (See Higher Superstitions. The academic left and its quarrels with science by Paul R Gross and Norman Levitt, The John Hopkins University Press, 1994)

What’s next? A book, first in French and then in English. Intellectual Frauds (Profile Books, 198) was written by Sokal with the help of Jean Bricmont, another physics professor, this time from Europe (Louvain, Belgium). The book is a devastating critique of ‘la crème de la crème’ of mainly, but not only, French intellectuals and the use of scientific terms they do not understand to pontificate on psychological/social/linguistic/political issues.

Having trained in psychiatry, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who used mathematical terminology to discuss psychological and linguistic issues. As a student, I never understood a word of what Lacan had written. For a long time I thought I had a second-rate brain, incapable of grasping intellectual constructs of Lacan’s ilk. Sokal and Bricmont redeemed me.

The authors quickly became heroes. Articles proliferated, both for and against them, which were consolidated into a website. But enough about Sokal and the French intellectuals. The company has its own ‘Sokal syndrome’, awash in jargon and often meaningless terminology. The advantage is that guru jargon is less pretentious, and one can more easily spot it without having to spend a lot of time debating whether the problem lies in one’s genetically limited brain. I would suggest that one of the primary roles of modern business leaders should be to uncover ‘intellectual nakedness’. And we have a lot of that around us.

Of course, puns and permutations are not the only preserve of business jargon. They seem to have a more natural home in politics. At the last British general election, for example, the following statement of intent went like this: “The power of all for the benefit of each, ours is passion united with reason.” One could even get the order wrong in the reading or listening and still get ‘a message.’ But was it “the force of every passion, joined with reason, for the good of all,” or “the passion of all” for the good reason”? The speaker, Tony Blair, became British Prime Minister a few weeks later.

The power of rhetoric

Revealing intellectual nudity in business is essential if you want to create a certain opinion about the business of the future. “The Guru has no clothes” is sometimes a shouting imperative, but people are still reluctant to shout, perhaps worried that, like Lacan and I, they might have missed something. There aren’t many good management ideas of substance in the forest of management rhetoric. Urgent with getting a fresh look and crusading for plain English (or French or Spanish) business discourse.

It would be wrong to align rhetoric with garbage. We must not dismiss the power of rhetoric. On the contrary, as human history shows, from politics to domestic psychology, the word matters. Business management must be taught in such a way that new generations can learn to distinguish between the signal and the noise. At the moment, the noise is of polluting magnitude. The power of rhetoric and its use in business history is the main theme of an old book I’ve read a few times and thoroughly recommend. It is called Beyond the hype. Rediscovering the essence of leadership by Robert G Eccles and Nitin Nohria (Harvard Business School Press, 1992).

You may not have noticed, but perfectly sane people who behave normally at the weekend, talk properly to other people at the supermarket checkout, become foreigners on Monday morning when they get to the office. Strange terminology takes over and the talk of ‘bottom lines’, ‘net-net’ and ‘closer to the customer’ starts.

A few months ago, at a company meeting, I took note of every time someone said ‘we as a team’. I had to stop because I got bored quickly. Imagine talking to your neighbors in the evening over a beer and using a kind of majestic ‘we as a family need to buy new curtains’. The next thing I noticed in that meeting was ‘at this time’. I’m sure you have a lot too.

If you’re interviewing someone who says they want to come on board because they ‘want to contribute to your customer-driven strategy and make a difference to your bottom line through clear vision and increasing shareholder value’, call 999. There’s always a on-call psychiatrist. In the past, people have been detained for less than that.

Does not tolerate pollution

Does not tolerate pollution. You might be one of those people who care about fresh air and hate standing in a traffic jam, for example by inhaling fumes. It’s bad for your body, so you avoid it. You just don’t expose yourself or your children to polluted air. Period. What you may not realize is that this is nothing compared to the jargon pollution affecting your brain. Avoid mental pollution as you would the rest. Hire people who have a reasonable command of their native language and show no signs of foreign contamination. You need to protect your mental health from ‘word permutators’. Remember, infectious diseases are no joke. They have individual and social consequences. Make a point of having enough vaccine to inoculate your entire ward. For example, ban the use of words like ’empowerment’ unless people immediately explain what they mean. ‘We have strengthened teams’ is a dangerous statement unless explained because it contributes to a false sense of normality, a sense of stability and the illusion of having a validated model organisation. In reality, it might mean nothing or at least different things depending on who is saying it.

Make your own list. At your next department meeting, have a flip chart and spend a few minutes deciding which terms you want to ban. You’ll be surprised how quickly suggestions appear. Give people some prospect of mental freedom and they will jump in. I did this exercise once where I banned the phrase ‘it depends’ in the context of ‘would you do this or that?’ and I can assure you that we had a very different meeting.

Don’t hire airport business school graduates. They’ve read the Five Laws of Empowerment and the Ten Habits of the Successful Manager on their way to Chicago and think they deserve an MBA for that alone. Get people on board who can exercise judgment and speak to you in the same language they speak to their spouse in the evening (that is, when leaders become normal people again). I’ve had managers come to me for a 20-minute meeting and start with the words, “well, the three things i want to achieve today from this meeting are…” All that, just as an appetizer and almost without a ‘good morning.’ I said to one of them, “relax it’s okay No need to show me a categorical, numerical, ordinal world of 1,2,3. When you go home, you really say, “Honey, the three things I want to accomplish tonight are…”?” The guy laughed and we had a normal conversation.

We also create a bullet-point society that leads to ‘The end of judgment’. In this social model, arguments must be summarized in three points and judgments summarized on the basis of a ‘give-me-the-net-the-net’ statement. It is, of course, the soundbite society that the current education system creates in most Western countries.

Business dynamics and their theoretical/applied pillars (organizational architecture and development, human resources, strategy-system-structure setting, operational practice and so on) need a strong cultivation of judgment plus general English. If that’s what it takes to shout ‘le roi est nu’ (the shorter French version of ‘the emperor has no clothes’) then so be it. Someone on the payroll might have to stand up and exclaim, “My dear guru, who influences our current rhetoric and business practices, you have the intellectual strength of a piece of cake. Thank you for your contributions. I have to train what’s left of my brain.” It may just be one of those revolutionary behaviors that can make the difference.

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