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Recognising the Sokal Syndrome
The Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social textan American magazine of fashion cultural studies, included an article entitled “Transgressing the boundaries: toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravidity.” It was written by Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, and it was full of nonsense. he proclaimed the most irrational of propositions and affirmed the 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 stringing together absurd arguments using unclear or inaccurate terminology and drawing conclusions from completely unreasonable lines of thought. But it was happily published. When it was, a shocked Sokal went public and declared it a hoax. He had demonstrated, through what he called “unorthodox and uncontrolled experiment“- that you can get away with almost anything in these times of cultural fads and questionable judgment.
Covers of The New York Times, The International Herald Tribunethe united kingdom Observer and the French Le Monde, all brought news of the deception. But what began as a restrained provocation soon expanded into a debate about the larger question of using sophisticated language borrowed from contemporary physics and mathematics and applying it to the social sciences, a typical “postmodernist” debate . (I will see Higher superstition. The academic left and its fights with science by Paul R Gross and Norman Levitt, The John Hopkins University Press, 1994)
what next A book, first in French and then in English. Intellectual impostures (Profile Books, 198) was written by Sokal with the help of Jean Bricmont, another physics professor, this time from Europe (Leuven, Belgium). The book is a devastating critique of ‘la crème de la crème’ of French intellectuals mainly, but not only, 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 the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who used mathematical terminology to discuss psychological and linguistic issues. As a student, I did not understand a word of what Lacan had written. For a long time I considered him to have a second-class brain incapable of understanding intellectual constructions like Lacan’s. Sokal and Bricmont redeemed me.
The perpetrators soon became heroes. Articles proliferated, both in favor and against, which were consolidated on a website. But enough with Sokal and the French intellectuals. Business has its own “Sokal syndrome,” awash in jargon and often meaningless terminology. The advantage is that guru jargon is less pretentious and can be detected more easily, without having to spend a lot of time debating whether or not the problem is in the genetically limited brain. I want to propose that one of the primary roles of modern business leaders should be to uncover “intellectual nakedness.” And we have a lot of that around.
Wordplay and permutation are not, of course, the sole preserve of business jargon. They seem to have a more natural home in politics. In the last British general election, for example, the following statement of intent went like this: “The power of all for the good of each, ours is passion combined with reasonYou could even get the reading or listening order wrong and still receive ‘a message’. But it was “the power of the passion of each, allied to reason, for the good of all,” or “the passion of all.” for reason”? The speaker, Tony Blair, became British Prime Minister a few weeks later.
The power of rhetoric
Discovering the intellectual nakedness in business life is essential if you want to make sense of the corporation of the future. “The guru has no clothes“Sometimes it’s an imperative to shout, but people are still reluctant to shout, perhaps worried that, like Lacan and I, we’ve missed something. There aren’t many ideas of good stewardship of substance in the forest of rhetoric of management. It is urgent to get it. a fresh look and a crusade for plain business speech in English (or French or Spanish).
It would be wrong to align rhetoric with trash. We must not discount the power of rhetoric. On the contrary, as human history shows, from politics to domestic psychology, words matter. Business leadership must be taught in such a way that new generations learn to distinguish between signal and noise. At the moment, the noise is of a polluting magnitude. The power of rhetoric and its use in business history is the main topic of an old book I’ve read a few times and recommend. Is called Beyond the hype. Rediscovering the essence of management by Robert G Eccles and Nitin Nohria (Harvard Business School Press, 1992).
You may not have noticed, but perfectly reasonable people who behave normally over the weekend, talking properly to other people at the supermarket checkout, for example, become strangers on Monday morning when they arrive at the office. Strange terminology takes over and starts talking about “bottom lines”, “net-net” and “closer to the customer”.
A few months ago, in a corporate meeting, I took note of every time someone said ‘we, as a team’. I had to stop because I soon got bored. Imagine talking to your neighbors in the evening over a beer and using some kind of majestic “as a family, we’re going to buy new curtains.” The next thing I noted in that meeting was “at this time.” I’m sure you have many too.
If you interview someone who says they want to join because they “want to contribute to your customer-facing strategy and make a difference to your bottom line through a clear vision and improved shareholder value”, call 999. There’s always a psychiatrist on duty In the past, people have been arrested for less than that.
Do not tolerate pollution
Do not tolerate pollution. You may be one of those who are careful about fresh air and hate being in a traffic jam, for example, inhaling fumes. It’s bad for your body, so you avoid it. 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 slang pollution that affects your brain. Avoid mental pollution as you would anything else. Hire people who have a reasonable command of their native language and who show no signs of foreign contamination. You need to protect your mental health against “word changers”. Remember that infectious diseases are no joke. They have individual and social consequences. Make sure you have enough vaccine to inoculate your entire department. For example, ban the use of words like “empowerment” unless people immediately explain what they mean. “We have empowered teams” is a dangerous statement if left unexplained because it contributes to a false sense of normalcy, a sense of stability, and the illusion of having a validated, role model organization. It can actually mean nothing, or at least different things depending on who says it.
Create your own list. At your next departmental meeting, make a flipchart and spend a few minutes deciding which terms to ban. You’ll be surprised how quickly the suggestions come out. It gives people a perspective of mental freedom with the ad they will be entering. I did this exercise once by banning the phrase “depends” in the context of “would you do this or that?” and I can assure you that we had a completely different meeting.
Don’t hire graduates from business schools and airports. They’ve read the Five Laws of Empowerment and the Ten Habits of the Successful Manager on their way to Chicago and believe that alone they deserve an MBA. Get people together who can exercise judgment and speak to you in the same language they speak to their spouse in the evening (that is, when managers are back to being normal people). I’ve had managers come to me for a 20-minute meeting and start with the words, “well, the three things i want to get out of this meeting today are…“All this, just as a starter and almost no ‘good morning’. I said to one of them: “please relax it’s ok 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 are also creating a bullet society leading to “The End of Judgment”. In this model of society, arguments must be summarized in three points and judgments condensed on the basis of a “give me the net-net” statement. It is, of course, society that is creating the current education system in most Western countries.
Business dynamics and its theoretical/applied pillars (organizational architecture and development, human resources, strategy-systems-structure, operational practices, etc.) need strong cultivation of judgment and simple English. If it takes shouting “le roi est nu” (the shorter French version of “the emperor has no clothes”) then so be it. Someone on the payroll may have to stand up and proclaim, “My dear guru who is influencing our current rhetoric and business practices, you have the intellectual strength of a custard pie. Thank you for your contributions. I’m going to exercise what’s left of my brain.” It may just be one of those revolutionary behaviors that can make a difference.
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