Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Corporate-speak and the violence of abstraction

Aaagh!! I’ve spent the last few days on a writing project for a corporate client. This work pays well, but sometimes it certainly takes its pound of flesh, as I discovered today after an exhausting meeting with the business owners to review content for their website. Now, they hired me and agreed to pay me the big bucks because they recognise my ability to communicate with people in writing. They agreed to provide me with a brief on what they wanted to say (okay, their ‘key messages and talking points’), and leave the final decisions on editorial content and style to me. So, I was more than a little peeved when they returned my pages littered with changes.

It wasn’t so much the way they’d altered my active voice to passive voice (what is it that businesses find so compelling in that?), or replaced my plain English with paragraph-long sentences full of incomprehensible jargon. No, it was the way they’d replaced my references to ‘people’ and ‘teams’ with the truly execrable ‘human capital’.

Yes, ‘human capital’. Possibly one of the most offensive, dehumanising expressions in common use today. Just one little consonant and a vowel sound away from ‘human cattle’.

So there we sat, tussling over the changes. I began by trying to keep my outrage in check. "Human capital is a very abstract term, it’s HR company jargon," I said. They said, "It makes us sound global and up-to-date". (Sound global?? What the hell does that mean?) I said, "Wait a minute. You’re supposed to be talking about people you like and value here. Why would you describe them in a way that is so dehumanising?" They dug their toes in.

And then, dear reader, I’m afraid I lost it.

Yes, I delivered a heated little lecture on eighteenth and nineteenth century labour practices and the human exploitation that fuelled the rise of capitalism. I said that ‘human capital’ was an expression slave owners probably would have used had they been cunning enough to think of it.

I stated my belief that the only people who could think this term is acceptable are those who’ve been privileged enough to never have experienced the dreadful, trapped feeling of being ‘owned’ by an employer. Either metaphorically, because you have no choice but to put up with dreadful employment conditions if you want to survive, or literally. I pointed out that slavery may have been abolished in the western world but it still, shamefully, exists elsewhere.

I may have mentioned Irish indentured servants. I definitely channelled E.P. Thompson (via Marcus Rediker) and railed about ‘the violence of abstraction’.

In the end, I couldn’t tell if they were contrite or just convinced I was a bit mad. I hope I’ve opened their eyes, even if only a little bit. But I wonder if I’ll still have a job tomorrow?


Academic, Hopeful said...

That's priceless. An intellectual's version of a Jerry Maguire moment! Love it. I have had a couple of similar rants in my time and from my experience, you will probably not ever know how much what you said affected them.

What you said was very challenging and probably very frightening for them. Liberty is scary for most people! They may even dig in their heels, feeling the other pressure from this (real or otherwise) 'global competition' and all the commercial and managerial language that comes along with that.

But it's still very much worth saying these things, even if you don't have a job in the morning (which would surprise me, they probably all hugely admire you). Points on the integrity board!

Ginger rule said...

Fantastic. I can only hope it is the corporate client I am imagining it is :)

Digger said...

Yay for you! This is awesome.

The History Enthusiast said...

You go girl! Tell them what for.

That is definitely a dehumanizing term, and even a non-academic should be able to see that. Geez.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for the support guys. Now, off to gird my loins in preparation for another round today...
And Ging - why yes, yes it is.

Digger said...

If they give you any guff, tell them, that as well as showing them as inhuman, unfeeling leeches, the wording they have selected will severely compromise their SEO rankings.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Let us know how it works out!