Signifying Bullshit

by Chris Horner

It is everywhere: the production of words designed to promote the fiction that something positive and good is happening, even though it isn’t.  It comes courtesy of the people you work for, the retail outlets you shop from, and the government organisations that regulate your life. An example: a large organisation develops and with fanfare publishes a document laying out its ‘values’ – under titles like ‘ trust’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘courage’, diversity’, and ‘respect’. It stresses how the individual is valued, the importance of diversity in the workplace, mental health, freedom from harassment and so on. This extends to recruitment and promotion: everywhere diversity, respect and fairness rule: they are ‘investing in people’. Meanwhile, workers at this place have had no real terms pay increase in a decade, overtime and overwork is commonplace, and the complaints system is bureaucratic and agonisingly slow. In the coronavirus epidemic, while desk bound staff were encouraged to work at home, catering and cleaning staff had to appear at the workplace as usual – and naturally, the lower paid stuff doing this are disproportionately female and black. Feeling stressed by the long hours and low pay? There’s an after hours yoga class for that, and a values document to read. 

The mass production of warm sounding words with minimal interest in real material outcomes is signifying bullshit (SB). It is nearly ubiquitous. A vast amount of time is spend promoting the idea to consumers that a pair of boots, or a coffee or a shampoo is somehow saving the planet or conquering hunger in Africa; the public is encouraged to tweet or post their reviews of the goods they’ve bought, as retailers and the media outlets that boost them all want your warm words, too. There’s an ocean of participation and inclusivity, although it is not clear who is reading all this stuff. Read more »