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Human Resources and Thought Control

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George Orwell

Several correspondents sent me links to James Gingell’s recent Guardian article about what George Orwell would have thought about today’s human-resources professionals. Gingell sees HR professionals as evil slimeballs. He thinks Orwell would have deplored their “bureaucratic repression” and hated “their blind loyalty to power, their unquestioning faithfulness to process, their abhorrence of anything or anyone deviating from the mean.” (I note in passing, without dwelling on the point, that he apparently thinks the ideal HR department would be (i) disloyal to the organization’s leadership, (ii) quite happy to violate agreed procedures, and (iii) in love with everything average. You should be the judge concerning whether this is how you would want the HR people in your university to behave. My own opinion is that from this much alone you can see that Gingell is unhinged.)

Like so many other usage pontificators, Gingell parrots Orwell’s warning against passives without understanding it: His examples reveal that he doesn’t know what a passive clause is (see this Language Log post, and my paper on passives for further discussion). Whether they use passives or not matters to him because he thinks we should set things right not by altering policies or procedures but by fixing HR’s language. He cites this key passage from Orwell’s overwritten and overpraised essay “Politics and the English language“:

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.

Orwell wanted toxic words and phrases to be eradicated (a linguistic analog of Stalin’s “elimination of undesirable elements”): Dozens of fairly common words and phrases were to be removed from currency in order to liberate and clarify our thinking. Free-riding on this, Gingell cites a couple of euphemisms like rightsizing as evidence that the HR office needs similar lexical cleansing.

But what Gingell doesn’t appreciate is that the process Orwell recommends is itself Orwellian mind control. And HR people are simply carrying out the program he recommended.

For what could have been the motivation for coining the word rightsizing ? Clearly, the alteration of vision-obscuring linguistic habits: Hackneyed, timeworn verbs like fire (or British English sack) need to be stamped out, HR people must believe, because they lock the intellectually lazy into inappropriately negative ways of thinking about workforce planning.

Instead of representing dismissal as an attack on individual workers’ livelihoods, strategists evidently thought, we need to represent it positively, in terms of adjusting the workforce to a size that will permit the organization to flourish. If successful, such a policy will do every remaining employee a favor by strengthening the organization and enabling it to prosper. Letting overstaffing cause the organization as a whole to fail, imperiling every employee’s future, surely does no one any favors.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t actually like the term rightsizing any more than you do. I dislike bland euphemisms in general (I don’t say that people who die have “passed away,” for example). And there is definitely a hint of dishonesty about the way the size adjustment never seems to be upward: We never seem to hear about rightsizing through energetic recruitment, or improving benefits to enhance retention. In reality rightsizing is always downsizing.

But the HR people (or their executive masters) who initiated the practice of referring to mass layoffs as rightsizing were doing just what Orwell recommended: fixing the perception of political reality by eradicating (what they see as) bad and careless linguistic habits.

My point is that either it’s right to try to reshape people’s thinking by sculpting their phraseology or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then Orwell shouldn’t have been trying to manipulate our political perception through linguistic revision. But if it is, then HR people are not doing anything wrong by following Orwell’s example.

You can’t have it both ways: Thought control through word or phrase eradication (if you believe such a quixotic policy of language destruction is even possible) can’t be uncritically regarded as right when Orwell does it but automatically condemned as wrong when your employer does it. That’s begging the question.

Of course, it is right to hate the truly repellent ideologies that Orwell was opposing in 1946. But being morally right about opposition to political diseases like Stalinism and fascism doesn’t make Orwell right about the linguistic medicine he peddles. Banning the word “pacification” will neither prevent the bombing of a village nor foment outrage over it; abolishing the phrase “rectification of frontiers” will neither stop ethnic cleansing nor encourage deprecation of it.

Euphemizing in itself is morally neutral. Trying to make things not sound so bad is a normal human impulse, and not an unkind one. It doesn’t make the language corrupt, or the user of HR jargon wicked.

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