Some marketing, religious, and lifestyle “gurus” have genuine and valuable insights to offer. But not all. Some are charlatans or fools offering little more than pseudo-profundity. Pseudo-profundity is the art of sounding profound while talking tosh. Unlike the art of actually being profound, the art of sounding profound is not particularly difficult to master.
As we’ll see, there are certain basic recipes that can produce fairly convincing results – good enough to convince many others, and perhaps even yourself, that you have achieved some sort of profound insight into the human condition. If you want to achieve the status of a guru it helps to have some natural charisma and presentational skills. Sincerity, empathy, or at least the ability to fake them, can also useful. Props often help – try wearing a loincloth, a fez, or, in a business setting, a particularly brash waistcoat, bow tie or pair of braces. But even without the aid of such natural talents or paraphenalia, anyone can produce for deep- and meaningful-sounding pronouncements if they are prepared to follow a few simple rules.
State the obvious
To begin with, try pointing out the blindingly obvious. Only do it e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y, and with an air of superior wisdom. This technique works best if your pronouncements focus on one of life’s big themes, love, money and death. Here are a few examples:
We were all children once
Death comes to us all
Money can’t buy love
State the obvious in a sufficiently earnest way, following up with a pregnant pause, and you may find others begin to nod in agreement, perhaps muttering “How true that is”.
A second, more sophisticated technique is to pick words with opposite or incompatible meanings and cryptically combine them in what appears to be a straightforward contradiction. Here are a few example:
Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary
Such sentences can easily appear profound, and are interpretable in all sorts of ways. They certainly get people thinking. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the three slogans of the Party are all examples of this kind of pseudo-profundity:
War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength
As an aspiring guru, you can produce your own contradictory claims. The great beauty of these kinds of comment is that they make your audience do the work for you. Their meaning is not for you to say – it’s for others to figure out. Just adopt a sage-like expression, sit back, and let your followers figure it out.
The use of contradiction to generate the appearance of profundity is common in religious circles. While a blatant contradiction within religious doctrine might strike the unbelievers as evidence that it’s rubbish, the faithful will often see such a contradiction as a mark of real depth and profundity. If you are planning to start your own religious cult, a good recipe to follow is to say contradictory things about your God or Gods. Constantly, assert, but then deny. Say that God is. And yet, he is not. God is everything, and nothing. He is one, and yet he is many. He is good. But then he isn’t.
None of this is to say that seemingly contradictory remarks cannot ever convey something genuinely profound. They can certainly be thought provoking. But, given the formulaic way in which they can be generated, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.
Wrap a platitude in an analogy
A particularly effective way of generating pseudo-profundity is take some dreary platitude - such as that life is often surprising, that we often feel there’s something “missing” from our lives, that we should appreciate things while we can, and make the most of the opportunities we get - and then wrap this platitude in an analogy. “Life is like a….” is an obvious example. Here are a few examples:
My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. (Forest Gump)
Life is like a taxi. The meter just keeps a-ticking whether you are getting somewhere or just standing still. (Lou Erickson)
Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us. (Thomas L. Holdcroft)
Life is like a coin. You can spend it any way you wish, but you only spend it once. (Lillian Dickson)
The result can often be terribly deep-sounding.
Religious sermons and homilies often follow this formula, of course. Alan Bennett produced a hilarious spoof in his sketch “The Sermon” (which Bennett delivered while wearing a dog collar):
Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And I wonder how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers of this life for that key. I know I have. Others think they’ve found the key, don’t they? They roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life. They reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein, and they get them out, and they enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little bit in the corner you can’t get out. I wonder is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine!
The author Douglas Adams, no doubt irritated by “Life is like a ….” pseudo-profundity, also produced his own surreal version:
Life... is like a grapefruit. It's orange and squishy, and has a few pips in it, and some folks have half a one for breakfast.
As an aspiring guru, can you can apply the same method of dressing up a platitude in an analogy. The recipe works best when applied to one of life’s big themes, so try picking one from: “Love is like a …” “Money is like a….” “Death is like a ….”, “Sex is like a …” “Success is a like a ….”, “God is like a ….”, “Religion is like a …”
A few big, not fully understood words can easily enhance the illusion of profundity. All that’s required is a little imagination.
Here is one common trick. Make up some words that appear to have meanings similar to the meanings of certain familiar terms, but that differ in some subtle and never-fully-explained way. For example, don’t talk about people being happy or sad, but about people having “positive or negative attitudinal orientations”. That sounds far more impressive and scientific-sounding, doesn’t it?
Now try translating some dull platitudes into your newly invented language. For, example, the truism that happy people tend to make other people feel happy can be re-expressed as “positive attitudinal orientations have high transferability”.
Also, whether you are a business guru, life-style consultant, or mystic, it always helps to talk of “forces”, “energies” and “balances”. Follow the example of the practitioners of feng shui, which holds that the wrong arrangement of furniture can block a “vital force” which will make your home vulnerable to crime or divorce. The appeal to such mysterious forces makes it sound as if you have discovered some deep mechanism or power that could potentially be harnessed and used by others. That makes it easier to persuade people that if they don’t buy into your advice, they’ll really miss out.
Finally, if some smart-Alec is brave enough to put up their hand and ask exactly what a “positive attitudinal orientation” is, define it using other bits of your newly-invented jargon. That will leave your questioner no wiser. If all your jargon is defined using other bits of jargon, no one will ever be able to figure out precisely what you mean (though some will think they know). And the fact that buried within your pseudo-profundities are several platitudes will give your audience the impression that you must really be on to something. So they’ll be keen to hear more.
Scientific jargon can be particularly useful. Many peddlers of pseudo-profundity have learned the insight expressed by the grea 19th Century scientist James Clerk Maxwell, that
Such... is the respect paid to science that the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase.
Referring to some branch of science can lend your ramblings further fake authority and gravitatas. References to quantum mechanics are particularly popular among peddlers of pseudo-scientific claptrap. Quantum mechanics has the advantage that it is widely known to be mysterious and weird, plus hardly anyone understands it, so if you start spouting references to it in support of your own teaching, people will assume you must be very clever, and almost certainly won’t realize that you are, in fact, just bullshitting.
Dealing with pseudo-profundity
Hopefully, this brief sketch of some of the main techniques for generating pseudo-profundity will help you spot it more effectively. If you are on the receiving end of pseudo-profundity, how do you respond? How can we best reveal pseudo-profundity for what it is?
T he greatest enemy of pseudo-profundity is clarity. One of the most effective methods of disarming it is to translate what is said into clear, plain English. Say, “Right, so you are saying…” and proceed jot down in clear, unambiguous prose on back of an envelope precisely what they do mean. Such a translation will typically reveal that what was said one of three things: (i) an obvious falsehood, (ii) nonsense, or (iii) a rather dull platitude or truism.
However, combating pseudo-profundity is rarely quite as easy as that. Those who spout it are often aware that clarity is likely to unmask them, and so will probably resist your attempts to rephrase what they mean in clear and unambiguous terms. They will probably accuse you of a crude misunderstanding (see Moving The Goalposts). Of course, they still won’t explain clearly what they do mean. They’ll just keep giving you the run around by changing the subject, erecting smokescreens, accusing you of further misunderstandings, and so on. For this reason, the unmasking of pseudo-profundity typically requires both time and patience.
Mockery can also be effective, as Allan Bennett’s “The Sermon”, nicely illustrates. The Hans Christian Anderson story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” ends with much hilarity when the small boy points out that the Emperor is actually wearing no clothes at all. The public’s laughter at the Emperor parading up and down naked finally breaks the spell that the weavers had, in effect, cast over them all. Laughter can similarly help break the spell that pseudo-profundity casts over us. A little mockery may help us recognize that we have been taken in by someone spouting little more than obvious truths, falsehoods or nonsense dressed up as profundity. For this reason, those who spout pseudo-profundity will often strongly discourage mockery – taking enormous, exaggerated offence at it.
Unfortunately, some cult-leaders, business gurus, mystics, life-style consultants, therapists - and even some philosophers – rely very heavily on the kind of techniques described in this chapter to generate the illusion that they possess deep and penetrating insights. The use of pseudo-profundity often contributes heavily to the perpetuation of intellectual black holes, ...