Don't give me culture
Whenever you hear a public figure using the word “culture” it is time to sit up and smell the bovine solids.
‘Culture’ has become something of a buzzword. This is not about culture as in arts and music and the like – although it has to be said that things have rather gone to the pack there since the modernists got in amongst it – but more the way the word has spread.
We have things like “workplace culture”, or “New Zealand’s binge drinking culture” or “the culture of this organisation is xxx”.
Apart from having a whiff of pretentiousness about it - not desirable, but not all that harmful – there is a more pernicious aspect to all this.
It’s vague. Incredibly vague.
It is something inherently unmeasurable. That is what makes it such a useful word when you want to not be all that accountable for what you are saying.
So when it is used in this way which is not about arts or music and the like, one of two things is typically happening.
Either someone is - to use a glorious Australianism – “tipping a bucker” on some business or organisation: or someone is wanting to make it look good, but in vague and fluffy terms.
“A culture of excellence” is one example of such fluffiness. “An inclusive culture” is another (both of these, by the way, taken from web sites of companies).
Which is why whoever you hear it used you can be sure of one of two things: either someone is condemning something, but in vague terms; or they are trying to make it look good – but, again, in vague and fluffy terms.
We heard a lot this past week about the culture at the Accident Compensation Corporation.
This was of course being done in a tipping of the bucket sense. No one was talking of ACC in the sense of cute or fluffy things this week.
In this case, it was being done by ACC Minister Judith Collins, who talked of the need for a “culture change” at the corporation.
Of course, Mrs Collins was, as politicians will often do, having it both ways.
She managed to perform both a bucket tip and a bit of fluffy dress-up: condemnatory of ACC’s apparent inability to manage some fairly basic and common-sense privacy precautions, the terminology was also a more fluffy way of saying “right – half of you blokes at the boardroom table are outta here.”
ACC has in fact been rather prone to bandying the culture word around. Outgoing board chairman John Judge used it in an interview with the National Business Review only a couple of years ago.
“Often the hardest task in changing an organisation is turning around the culture but I’ve been surprised at how quickly the culture in ACC has turned around,” he said.
The events of the past week suggest the culture change was very much in the eye of the beholder – which is, of course, the main problem with the word when it is used in this way.
To be fair to Mr Judge, the culture change he was talking about was not relating to privacy but it is still a phrase steeped in vagueness.
He is in a long tradition. Ross Wilson, his predecessor as ACC chairman, wrote in a paper in 2005 about the need for a “a culture change in New Zealand and a recognition that the toll of injury and death in all areas of activity can be drastically reduced with properly developed and applied strategies which recognise that the social and monetary cost to society of these is unacceptable.”
None of which anyone would disagree with, as such, but one struggles to get to grips with what all that actually means in specific terms. Again, the word “culture” is a dead giveaway that someone is being needlessly vague.
Beyond ACC, probably the biggest use of the term has been that favourite of modern day finger-waggers, “New Zealand’s binge drinking culture”.
Note that it is alleged that the entire country has this culture, apparently, not just a few sub-groups.
Note, too, that “binge drinking”: is usually left undefined, and that when it is defined it tends to turn out to be rather low: a couple of pints of some beers will put you over the “five standard drinks in one session” limit.
Yet again, the culture word is one to watch for. Whenever it pops up in these sorts of areas, it is a clear sign someone is trying for a form of strategic vagueness.