07 March 2008

Creeping nihilism

One day at work some years ago there was a reorganisation in our department, and one person Nadia (not her real name) was designated as the "HR person".

Some time later there was a quarrel between two co-workers that was disrupting the work of the department and it was being discussed at an executive meeting. I suggested that Nadia should deal with it, since "she is, after all, the Human Relations person."

Everyone looked at me as if I was mad, and the head of department asked me what I meant. I said she had been designated as the "HR" person, which I had taken to mean "Human Relations". Everyone else said, Oh, no, HR means "human resources".

I then remembered seeing an advertisement in the Sunday Times a few years before, for the post of "Human Resources Manager", and I'd even written something about it at the time -- that the spirit of capitalist exploitation was entering our language to indoctrinate us. The Nationalist government had been doing it for years in their apartheid policy, of course, trying to dehumanise black workers and job-seekers by referring to them as "labour units", who could be sent back to the homelands when they were surplus to requirements.

I was quite shocked to discover that such language had crept into a university, and had become so natural and familiar that everyone referred to it by an abbreviation, apparently known to everyone except me. Such dehumanising language seemed to be the very antithesis of the much-vaunted ubuntu, which was supposed be the philosophy of the new South Africa.

I was reminded of this this morning by a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup about the "harvesting" of human organs for transplanting. That too seems crassly insensitive and exploitative.

In that case it is not just me, but several people seem to find it so. One found the term "extremely distasteful". Another said, "Sounds like you're going at the body with a scythe, an unfortunate image. Or a grain harvester, even worse, perhaps."

Another said:
It also sounds as if the donor was cultivated for the purpose, which isn't impossible in these days.

At any rate, I wouldn't support required organ donations. There is a big crew of workers who make a great deal of money transplanting organs. Why should any random individual be required to donate free organs to support this business? If it's a question of requiring donations based on the need of the potential recipient, then shouldn't the crew of workers be required to donate their efforts free of charge when the recipient doesn't have insurance coverage?

There was some discussion of alternative words, though most thought they wouldn't pass the public relations test: "salvage" and "cannibalise", for example. Cannibalise is used analogously in the motor trade, when one cannibalises a scrap vehicle for spare parts to use on one that it still running.

The last word in that discussion so far is: "To me, the word is disrespectful towards the Grim Reaper."

But these are just two instances of dehumanising language, words and phrases that become common currency. We may talk all we like about the spirit of ubuntu, but the very structure of our language is driving it out. Creeping nihilism, I call it.


Yewtree said...

I call it Newspeak, after the debased language in Orwell's 1984.

I do so agree about the term "human resources" - I am not a resource, I am a person (I preferred "personnel").

Wouldn't it be wonderful if HR did stand for Human Relations?

And as for "harvesting" - eeuuww. How about "recycling"?

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, I think "personnel" was better, even if a bit military.

I think there were two things that contributed to my misunderstanding.

One was that the Anglican Church, many years before, had had a "Human Relations and Reconciliation Programme", abbreviated to "HR&R". And the other is by analogy with "PR" for "Public Relations".

I think "Human Resources" first appeared in the early 80s. I wonder who introduced it, and why it spread.


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