The three-and-a-half hour evisceration that was the Joe Rogan Experience #1258 was one of the more extraordinary contemporary media debates I’ve seen. Tim Pool pulled no punches, but he didn’t strike below the belt either. I have recommended Pool’s work before, but this really puts him on the map as one of the most intelligent, ethical, and professional journalists out there.
But aside from the actual content of the debate (Twitter, censorship, and political bias in tech), the exchange was an interesting demonstration of what we might call “corporate snake-talk.” Vijaya Gadde, a lawyer and the head of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, was one of the participants in this debate, and showed off virtually all of the qualities of corporate snake-talk. For this reason, she can serve as a great tool for breaking down and understanding corporate snake-talk, so that we might recognize it when we see it and not be distracted by it. As we shall see, distraction seems to be the primary goal of corporate snake-talk.
I want to start off by saying that corporate snake-talk does not necessarily originate with malicious or deceptive intent. It is a kind of language that people who are over-educated in certain fields (marketing, PR, HR, business, law, etc) seem to naturally pick up, and it becomes second nature. But as Orwell claimed in his essay on the subject, the effect can become a cause of its own. Corporate snake-talk naturally lends itself to deception, and without trying to be dishonest, a corporate snake-talker may deceive others as well as themselves.
So what is corporate snake-talk, exactly?
At its most basic level, corporate snake-talk is a euphemistic manner of speaking, in which precise details are replaced with more general, but polysyllabic industry-terms. Instead of saying “we fired John for being late,” a corporate snake-talker has learned that they sound more professional if they say “we strongly believe in personal accountability in the workforce, [insert connection here], and so John is no longer working with us.”
This is a distillation of the nature of corporate snake-talk, and separated from a longer string of explanatory nothingness, the example may sound a little exaggerated. But when you actually listen to them go, they really do sound like this.
But corporate snake-talk doesn’t stop with mere words. I think that is the initial stage of learning the language, but ultimately, it changes the structure and order of one’s thoughts in speech. The novice may use the sorts of phrases you might find on the corporate bullshit generator (a few examples: “distinctively integrate team building testing procedures,” “progressively whiteboard optimal opportunities,” and “energistically impact adaptive infrastructures”), but the more adept corporate snake-talkers may actually use very simple and clear words without the substance of their statement being any more understandable or believable.
In the case of both the amateur and the expert, the purpose of corporate snake-talk is to cover one’s ass. Because of the general lack of forgiveness — or perhaps simply because of the surplus of other people available to take one’s place — in the PR side of high-octane corporate culture, not fucking up is more important than clarity. Ambiguity means plausible deniability, and the goal of corporate snake is to keep themselves and their company out of trouble. Their purpose is not to clarify, to enlighten, and certainly not to take responsibility.
So what happens when you get a dishonest person who is also a fluent corporate snake-talker?
You get someone like Vijaya Gadde.
Vijaya has a few tells which identify her not just as a snake-talker, but as a dishonest one:
- Thanking a critic for their feedback. This is a disarming distraction, which by itself reduces the weight of a criticism. But often times, it’s just words, and the clever snake-talkers can even sneak in a mitigation or denial inside some long-winded story about how they care about your opinion. This can be difficult to spot, and even harder to point out and counter. If someone is repeatedly “thanking you for your feedback,” but seems uninterested in understanding, implementing, or airing the substance of that feedback, they’re almost certainly being deceptive and simply trying to shut you up.
- “That’s your opinion.” Everything that everyone says is an opinion. Even an assertion of a fact is, simultaneously, an assertion of the relevance of that fact, which is not itself a fact, but an opinion. Any statement made by anyone can be responded to with some variant of “that’s just your opinion,” which is always used selectively. I find that the motivation behind this comment is often more benign than outright deceptive — usually, the attempt of a pacifist to shut down someone more combative, in hopes of avoiding an argument with some third participant — but is nevertheless dishonest, and can be a tell for a snake-talker.
- Playing dumb. This is the most obvious and the most dishonest ploy, and especially common among lawyers (incidentally, the least likely type of people to actually not know anything about what they claim ignorance). It’s just as easy to ask a clarifying question (this is what active listeners do), but simply saying “I don’t understand” puts the entire burden of coherence on the other person, and puts you in a position to snipe out potential inconsistencies while priming the listener to believe the speaker’s comment somehow didn’t make sense.
- Endless reference to context. A context is a frame, and as such, is subjective (as opposed to a discrete incident, which can be described objectively). Endless appeals to greater contexts are usually just water-muddying defenses of arbitrary decisions.
Jack and Vijaya use all of these ploys at various points, (4) in particular. But Vijaya’s claim to not know what Tim is talking about, relating to the “regressive Left” (3) is the most obvious and unbelievable maneuver. Not only is there no way that Vijaya does not know what the “regressive Left” is; she knows, as well as anyone else, that she is a part of it. She is almost certainly a feminist, a progressive, probably even a socialist. Given her preference for U.N. law over American law, she is definitely a globalist. And her talk about protected classes (which demonstrably omit certain groups, no matter what she says), mark her as a part of the identitarian Left.
But these are just the markers of bad faith. Put that on top of the euphemistic speaking patterns of corporate snake-talk, and what you get is a hyper-articulate sounds which mimic meaning, but actually signify nothing… and worse, try to tear down whatever substance someone else might be attempting to convey. It’s a play for power, based on the assumption that if no one’s points are understood or valued, than the smarter-sounding participant will win the approval of the audience. At its core, this is the purpose of corporate snake-talk: approval. Bad faith tricks just ensure that the standard of judgment tends toward the sound and appearance of intelligibility, rather than the reality.