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February 9: Efficiency

Every so often you hear an item on the news tut-tutting about the inefficiency of the French way of life. A respected commentator or economist or some other intellectual microbe explains how the French have been living beyond their means since the war and are now having to rein back the apparatus of the state. The evidence for this isn’t presented in terms of falling incomes, or plummeting educational standards, or reduced life expectancy, or any of the other usual measures of a society in decline. Instead there is just a list of all the pleasures French people enjoy, such as a working healthcare system and all-afternoon Sunday lunches, interspersed with choleric mutterings about “extravagance”.
Whenever I go to France, and drive along the smooth country roads, peering out at the pavement cafes and exquisite restaurants that can be found even in the smallest places, marvelling at how people can buy fresh bread every morning without driving a mile out of town because the local high street has been suffocated by free-market competition, I try to picture a senior executive sitting next to me in his pinstriped suit, vanquishing the cobblestone streets with a dismissive wave of the hand and declaring: “oh, no, no, this will never do. They’re going to have to close down all these boulangeries and boucheries and throw up a couple of call centres before they can ever hope to make any progress.” And then I imagine myself hitting him very hard over the head with a three-day-old baguette. (I wonder, too, if French people ever drive around Britain, bumping up and down over the pot-holes, gawping at the charity shops and identikit fast-food chains, and hug themselves while exclaiming: ‘truly, we have arrived in Shangri-La.’)
I hold no particular candle for the French. I’m as uncomfortable as anyone with the grinding deprivation of the banlieus, the popularity of the Front National, the whole business of making foie gras and their ludicrous attempts to patch up the fading glory of their language. But when we deride their lifestyle as inefficient it says far more about the corrosive effect of the efficiency culture on our society than it reveals about theirs. Efficiency is the justification councils and businesses use when laying off staff or cutting services, in that egregrious phrase “efficiency savings”. It’s why houses are getting smaller even as property prices continue to rise (another marker of ‘progress’ that the French haven’t cottoned on to yet). Nothing beautiful or memorable was ever achieved in the pursuit of efficiency, and if you want a working definition of the word, try this: the most efficient way to decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling would have been to paint it white.

February 3: Experience

All writers know that deflating feeling when reality turns out to be more warped and twisted than anything their imaginations can cook up. I originally wrote a detailed entry about the violation of the word experience, elaborating on the example of the Millennium Dome, rechristened the New Millennium Experience, which subsequently and deservedly went into liquidation. What I really wanted, though, was an example of how ‘experience’ had become at once a vacuous aspiration and a device by which marketers con both the public and themselves into thinking that something has been ‘enhanced’ when it hasn’t been materially improved at all. And then they wonder why people gripe about being sold a dud.
Then this morning I went shopping in Marks & Spencer and found this on a pack of shrink-wrapped apples: “M&S hand select the best apples from the best orchards each season to consistently deliver a full flavoured eating experience”.
Translated into English, I think this means: “We pick the tastiest apples”. I could be wrong, but I can’t see anything in their 20 words that isn’t expressed in my five. The rest is worse than meaningless. I’m not interested in taking delivery of an experience; I just want a mid-morning snack. Besides, what is an “eating experience”? Should I expect this Braeburn to inspire an Isaac Newton-style epiphany? And if it doesn’t, can I have my money back?
The more serious iniquity about “experience” is that it prioritises subjective judgment over objective assessment. Deciding objectively if a hospital is clean and well run means undertaking a series of tests that take time, manpower and cost. Quizzing people on their “in-patient experience” is much quicker, simpler and easier to engineer management-friendly results. Underlying it all is the credo that fooling people into thinking they’re satisfied is more important than providing what they need. Take the phenomenon of HD television, which is predicated on the notion that it “optimises the viewing experience”. It doesn’t: it just makes the picture sharper. The actual quality of the entertainment on offer isn’t improved one jot. All you’ve really gained is is the ability to count Simon Cowell’s nose hairs. Which, admittedly, is more interesting than listening to him.
So I implore whoever writes this stuff: please deliver us from the experience experience, before I’m inspired to deliver a bare-knuckle experience to your blue-sky-thinking nose.

January 29: Variety

Advertisers love to use this word to denote a number of items that are similar to the point of monotony. If they’re struggling to deceive even themselves they’ll upgrade it to a ‘wide variety’. (such as the web page that proudly proclaims: “NextTag features a wide variety of toothpick holders”). A similar fate has befallen the adjective “eclectic”, commonly used in journalism today as a synonym for “jumbled”, “garish” or “exhibiting all the taste and refinement of a five-year-old left alone in a room with a set of coloured marker pens and a cat”.

January 18: Challenge

We live in challenging times. We know this because politicians keep telling us we do. It’s generally understood that the challenge came about because the banking sector overstretched itself, encouraging us to spend money we didn’t have on things we didn’t need. Challenging times mean that unfortunately, and due to circumstances beyond their control, people have to cut back their spending and accept that they may lose their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods. Curiously, the one group of people who did have some dominion over these circumstances – the bankers – seem to be immune from this plague of austerity and are continuing to pick up their very healthy bonuses. We are told, entirely without irony, that this is necessary for the good of the economy because otherwise the “top talent” that got us into this mess might leave the country. And what an appalling prospect that would be.

The bogus challenge is one of the oldest pieces of sleight-of-hand in the corporate management book. A genuine challenge involves some reward for the person who takes it on. It has the potential to be truly uplifting and satisfying. A bogus challenge involves a considerable sacrifice by one person for the exclusive benefit of another (usually your boss, or your boss’s boss, or your boss’s boss’s shareholders). Climbing Mount Everest is challenging; the Daily Telegraph crossword is challenging; watching Piers Morgan on television while restraining the urge to smash your fist through the screen is challenging (even if the only reward lies in not having to present your shredded knuckles at A&E). Having to stay on a few hours at work for no extra pay, or taking a job in a new corporate structure because the management made a monkey’s-jizz blancmange of the old one, isn’t challenging. It’s just a pain in the arse.

Nine times out of ten, when a politician talks of “the challenging times we face”, what he really means is: “the challenging times you face so that I can continue to binge on expenses and bail out my chums in the finance sector at your expense.”

There is another hateful use of the word challenge. People who enjoy whingeing about political correctness like to invent two-word euphemisms using the word “challenged” to show what witty and accomplished social commentators they are. To my knowledge nobody has ever used a phrase like “vertically challenged” in earnest (though obviously, if they have, they deserve to have their bollocks challenged by a hungry rottweiler) and the only useful purpose of these phrases is to single out imagination-deficient cretins so they can be discriminated against at dinner parties.

January 11: Common Sense

Teachers at school liked to tell me I lacked common sense. Even though I didn’t understand at the time what it was, the statement was always phrased to imply that I was missing some indispensable tool for getting ahead in the world. Yet frustratingly, it wasn’t something that could be learned or acquired. You either had it or you didn’t, the way some people are double-jointed or can “see” the 3D images in those Magic Eye books that always looked to me like pages of wavy lines, however hard I strained my eyes.

Nowadays I realise I should have thanked those teachers loudly and cherished my immunity from the cancer of logic that is represented by the two words “common sense”. On closer inspection, neither applies: common sense is an umbrella term used to excuse all kinds of uncommon nonsense. It tends to be favoured by politicians of a conservative hue, but that’s not my real beef with it. The real problem is that it suggests that the speaker is entitled to bypass the ordinary conventions of reasoned argument because he is somehow in touch with what “real people” think on the issue.

The clue is in the verb the phrase takes: “common sense dictates”. It doesn’t contemplate, weigh up the evidence, examine counter-proposals or analyse. It just dictates how things should be, oblivious to the shifting and chaotic nature of reality. It forms an opinion from first impressions and clutches at the first piece of evidence that supports it (to be fair, an awful lot of “reasoned argument” works in this way too, but that doesn’t mitigate either system). Common sense dictates that the earth is flat; that crime is forever going up even when it’s falling; that exams are getting easier when the truth is pretty much impossible to fathom; that a couple of weeks of snow invalidates decades of evidence of global warming.

Common sense short-term thinking dressed up as a long-term political philosophy. At the 1999 Conservative Party conference William Hague announced five “Common Sense Guarantees” in areas such as health and education. To illustrate each of them he held up a story of somebody – usually a pensioner – who had been inconvenienced in some way by the public services. The conceit behind this was almost insufferable, as if the whole matrix of woes afflicting the public sector could be boiled down to a handful of selected (and, yes, disquieting) cases.

Perhaps most symbolic of all was the sixth “guarantee”: the 1999 conference was the first to be held in Blackpool. Traditionally Labour had always held its conference in the northern holiday resort, but when the newly elected Labour government, in a gesture that said much about its own shifting political orientation, moved its annual gathering elsewhere, the Conservatives sensed an opportunity to portray themselves as the new party of the ordinary man. At the end of the conference Hague announced triumphantly: “We’re coming back to Blackpool every other year.” Within six years there was barely concealed mutiny within the party at the prospect of a biannual trip to “the land of kiss-me-quick hats, donkeys and mushy peas”, and in 2009, after just four return visits, the conference shifted to Manchester.

That’s the trouble with letting common sense dictate: what seems like a good idea at first comes to look arbitrary, perverse and finally ludicrous as time goes on. Like all dictators, its main merit is in being overthrown.

January 4: Apology

First of all, let me apologise unreservedly for any offence or inconvenience that this blog may cause you.

There, that was easy, wasn’t it? Now let’s draw a line under it and move on.

You might think my apology wasn’t particularly contrite, but the genius of this style of apology is that it relieves the apologiser of any real duty to say sorry. If anyone questions my motive or sincerity, all I have to do is retort that they have a chip on their shoulder, or an agenda, and let’s face it, who wants to look like that when the wind changes?

Let’s look more closely at a familiar example. When my train was delayed this morning, the announcement ended with the sentence: “ScotRail would like to apologise for any inconvenience that this may cause.” If you look closely, it contains no less than three conditional statements. At first it might sound like an honest declaration: “We’re sorry for making you late.” But in fact what it really says is this: “We don’t really accept that holding you up for half an hour will be any serious impediment to your schedule at all, but in the unlikely event that it may cause you any kind of disruption of all, we would like to offer you our apologies (only we’re not going to, because we frankly can’t be bothered).

A similar thing happened when Prince Harry attended a party dressed as a Nazi. Afterwards Clarence House put out the following statement: “Prince Harry has apologised for any offence or embarrassment he has caused. He realises it was a poor choice of costume.” Again, it looks like an apology, but really all it does is compound the insult by suggesting there was any doubt that he might have offended anyone. A genuine apology would have involved finding out who he’d insulted and why, and then addressing an unconditional message towards them – perhaps, given the likely numbers involved, through a suitable organisation such as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Instead he put out a statement through the palace press office grudgingly acknowledging his “poor choice of costume”, as if the whole thing could be dismissed as a fashion faux pas.

People who make such apologies often wonder why others are reluctant to forgive them. Simply put, it’s because a genuine appeal for forgiveness involves some measure of penitence. But this kind of apology isn’t an apology: it’s an apology for an apology. And a pretty sorry one at that.

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