This Was Written by Nick Webb and I added the links.
Once I was a publisher whose last job was as the UK gaffer of an improbable American corporation. Then I became a scribbler. My experience on both sides of the publisher’s desk convinced me that there is nobody quite as shameless as a writer. For this reason I’d better fess up and admit that I’d like this blog to help me flog a few books. But there is another reason, and I hope the reader will forgive me if it comes across as pretentious. It’s this: anger. I’d like this to be a rallying cry against the sheer pitch and volume of the alps of bullshit heaped upon us daily.
Language is mankind’s greatest invention. If we let it be degraded, we lose something of our humanity. Is there a thought so subtle that we cannot express it – and, if so, would we ever know it? Language allows us to be self-conscious, to co-operate with and communicate with other members of our species and to think for ourselves.
Some bullshit is so crude that we identify it promptly, and thus render it harmless. But there is a more dangerous, sneaky variety that is invisibly incorporated into the words we use. It is surreptitiously value-laden. What price democracy when we cannot understand what is being said to us? How can we make informed decisions if we have lost the ability to reason?
Our language has to be a collective possession. If, uttering the sound “cat”, I was referring to a budgie, I would appear bonkers. A private language is a private world, but the apparatus with which we think is public. The words we use derive their meaning by the agreement of the group. A dictionary is a huge list of conventions. It says: let’s use these words to be more or less synonymous with these.
We humans are an inventive lot. When I was a publisher I marvelled at the creativity of those people who could devise a whole fictional universe, yet all of us can use language to entrance or to deceive. Every day we tell porkies that may range from kindly little bits of tact to whoppers of mendacity.
All this may seem a bit precious. The point of bullshit is that it need not be an outright lie. It is more malign. To tell a lie, you need to know the truth. Bullshit prevents that; we deceive ourselves first.
Politicians, for instance, are fluent practitioners of bullshit. They like to evade personal responsibility in case things go awry. Hence the ubiquitous use of the word “hopefully” meaning not “full of hope” but that the proposition that follows is desirable – though not necessarily endorsed by the speaker. If a calamity ensues, it’s clearly not the result of some misjudgement. No. it’s a “situation”, something built into the universe, a given. Mistakes, if any, are made in the passive voice just as “lessons will be learned” also in the passive.
There is a whole armoury of linguistic tricks that enable the fluent, who have always had power over the inarticulate, to bamboozle us in argument. Some of these tricks are as old as rhetoric itself. “Begging the question”, for example, is not evading it, or crying out for it to be answered. It means assuming that which you were trying to prove, and this sneaky process can be built into single words. “Victimization” presumes that somebody is a victim. “Imperialism” contains shorthand notions of history.
Language lets us describe the world, but it also squeezes our perceptions into a template of our own devising. Bullshit does the same, but in deep disguise. My hope for The Dictionary of Bullshit and the later Dictionary of Political Bullshit is that they will help us buff up our bullshit detectors. If not now, as Primo Levi observed, when? After all, the UK Prime Minister is a smooth PR man with a virtuoso talent for bullshit. The great George Orwell is my hero in this regard: how he would have been revolted by all the talk of the “Big Society”, a transparent piece of Newspeak.
The time has come to man the barriers.
Wish You Were Here is the official biography of my friend, the author Douglas Adams. He was a huge man – vast nose, enormous brain, and a colossal influence on the world that is still apparent. I tried to write the book with some humour and an unusual structure, starting with his untimely death and finishing with his birth. Nobody noticed, so that should teach me not to be a pseud, eh? The biography will be republished by Ashgrove Press this year(2011), unimaginably the tenth since Douglas died.