In the town where I live, there’s a comically overpriced antique shop and the owner of this shop has two flashy vans, each beautifully liveried with pictures of fine Georgian furniture on the side and this maxim: ‘Antique furniture at it’s finest’ and you feel like going along and writing underneath it in neat Sharpie: ‘and grammar at its worst!’.
Where did the hollowly gestural, rhetorically inflated language we use on a daily basis come from? It is to inoculate yourself against criticism or opposition to smother your ‘product’ in superlatives – i.e ‘we only serve the finest wines’. If I write this, I’m casting a protectional spell over myself and my company, you cannot dare to disagree, for it has been written down and is therefore truth! From experience it is decidedly wanting or mediocre things that use the big, incontestable language. A place that was once organic, grass-roots, mat/paternal like a village school gets taken over by careerist bureaucrats but instead of using something suitably Orwellian in the way in which the school then markets itself (‘the work house’), the language becomes a grotesque parody of what it was. So the children might look miserable as they are being told how to look after money or take out life insucrance or something like that while all the walls are decorated with slogans like ‘where dreams come to thrive’. My school, a bastion of stultifying ordinariness, went under the banner ‘committed to excellence’. Cue Sharpie pen again: ‘but never actually attaining it’…
Even feedback online is now diametrically polarised into two distinct bullshit camps – something is either irredeemably awful ‘1 star’ (‘if I could give zero stars I would’) or it’s the best thing since sliced bread (which is not that great). It’s the pubs that have walls all scrawled over with syrupy sentiments like ‘there are no strangers here, only friends you’ve not yet met’ that in actual fact come across like the tavern in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’. We watch TV shows (maybe not you though) where greedy property developers buy up houses at auction and instead of unashamedly admitting ‘we’re only in this for the money’ we instead get some sort of self-congratulating homily on how they are in fact saints who are helping to ‘remedy the housing shortage in this country’. On the news the other week I was told there are now over eight million ‘economically inactive’ people in the UK and the task of the current government is to ‘upskill’ these people to make them more attractive to employers. What about the economically inactive people who are perfectly skilled as it is, thank you very much?
In the poetry world, all poets are ‘critically acclaimed’ and ‘prizewinning’ and appearing in the ‘best poets of god-knows-what’ anthologies. They’re ‘brand-building’ and ‘networking’ and frittering away their energies on Twitter and Facebook feuds, or else writing blogs like this, hoping against hope that they’re not just talking to themselves in an echo chamber or rubber room.
We’re drowning in this morass of bullshit on a daily basis, and no area of life is safe from it. In fact, even the word itself ‘bullshit’ reeks decidedly of bullshit.