The Decoder: But how’s your rectal capaciousness?

By Branko Brkic 22 December 2009

One day HR-speak will pay for the heinous damage it has done to the language. Until then we have to live with the sickening supposition that every vice is, in fact, a virtue.

“Masochism,” wrote Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, “is a valuable job skill.” On some mornings, one might agree that it’s the only skill necessary for making it successfully through the day. Palahniuk wisely casts the ability to suffer inordinately and enjoy it as something that can be applied to a number of real world situations – specifically, one’s vocation. Here at Maverick, “committed masochist” is a prerequisite for a successful job applicant. No doubt it’s the same at your place of work.

Skill is an especially catholic word, perhaps the most inclusive in the English language. Almost anything – from the heights of human genius to the pits of sub-human stupidity – counts as a skill. Kindness appropriately applied (thank you, Mother Teresa) can be a sort of skill. Psychopathic narcissism (cheers, Robert Mugabe), the same.

I think of MTV’s Johnny Knoxville and his Jackass posse, who are the latest incarnations of the sideshow freak avatar. They come from a long legacy of men who have turned swallowing swords, drinking industrial chemical product, vomiting on themselves and public masturbation into lengthy, and occasionally lucrative, careers. In their world, “ability to place large shampoo bottle up butt” counts as a significant stock in trade. For a chartered accountant, similar rectal capaciousness would count as a filthy perversion. This suggests that skills are as much about context as ability. Find the right forum, and that lazy eye is comic genius rather than an embarrassing disability.

Not all skills are so specific. Most postindustrial Western educational systems endeavour to forge a general aptitude in their charges (under the right circumstances, I could add several numbers together when I left high school. I could also read and write, and did so on toilet doors), so that we may hone specific skills, and eventually find gainful employment. It stands to reason that the fully rounded student would be able to acquire a greater number of skills than the kid in the back of the class who spent twelve years rolling spitballs. But also, skills are the musculature that keeps our cognitive skeletons hinged – without being able to apply intelligence, what good does intelligence do us?

Clearly thinking of Jackass, the great Latin poet Sextus Propertius wrote in his Elegies, “let each man pass his days in that wherein his skill is greatest”. That’s a fine sentiment. But how does this maxim work, exactly, in a world where we are re-skilled, de-skilled, unskilled, pre-skilled and post-skilled; where there are transferable skills, non-transferable skills and partially transferable sub-skills?

Etymology can often be akin to mere nostalgia, but I think it is in this case instructive to note that “skill” is derived from the Old Norse word skil, which meant “discernment” or “distinction”. In Old English, the term skilja meant “to separate”, while in the long dead tongue of Goth, a skilja was butcher. In the latter term, skill nicely dovetails with trade. One has the skilja to dismember an animal; one is therefore a skilja.

Lately, the noun skill has been so smacked about that it is near insensible. But if there is a deathblow – a nasty coup de grace – it must be the term “skill sets”. “Skill sets” is firstly objectionable for its sibilance. It sounds like a foundational text for Hogwart’s Slytheran House, an educational tome for Harry Potter’s many enemies: Skill Sets and Other Slithery Spells for Exterminating Sentience. The alliterative “s” makes it sound seriously slimy, and where there are so many beautiful words, should we not avoid using – never mind coining – ugly ones? And it doesn’t help that “kill” nestles within skill, amplified somehow by the addition of “sets”.

At some point in the recent past, skills became Smarties – just one won’t do the trick; you need a whole box full. We must now scour the (often desultory) register of our capabilities (can suck spaghetti strand through nostril; can fit entire fist in mouth), and somehow recast them as a set of relevant capabilities. So we rewrite the narrative of our lives, elevating the oddity of our quirks (sleeps with one eye slightly open) into the functionality of a skill (extremely aware, always vigilant).

The thing about skill sets is, of course, that they’re less about actual skills and more about packaging. One could peruse the résumés of two good candidates with the same or similar real world skills, but it is she who packages those skills into neatly definable sets, within context, who is more likely to get the job.

And what is re-skilling if not repackaging – adding another element to already established skills, and in this way altering their context. It amounts to a dull shell-game, shifting human experience and education around to fit a bulleted list of job requirements, rather than taking a holistic view of an applicant, and imagining not how they’d fit with the job, but rather how the job would fit, and perhaps be enhanced by, them. But modern human resources departments – management scientists’ robed handmaidens – don’t have the skill sets for such skill set re-evaluation.

There is, of course, a danger in whittling a human being down into an aggregation of skills: the second we consider “personality” as a “set of interpersonal skills” rather than an intrinsic element of a fellow being, we’re reducing our peers – those we have to work with, for or against – into a series of bullet points. And business – any business – always comes down to understanding people, and understanding them fully. Successful people are very often social people. I don’t mean that one would necessarily like to have them over for dinner (Conrad Black was notoriously prickly before his attorneys helped him sandblast the sharp edges off his demeanour); but they not only think of people in terms of strengths and weaknesses, they are particularly attuned to the grey areas in between. And knowing people properly is, in Chuck Palahniuk’s words again, a “near-life experience”.

Skills are like knives; properly sharpened and well maintained, they slice a path through life. As the cast of Jackass would agree, in between sips of Vim, skills are dependent on context. But making fancy sets out of them is a reductive process.

We should never be defined by our skills. And some things – like our nature – are never skills. Masochism, however, is always one. So please excuse me, after I pour some cordite on my auto-flagellation wounds, there are deadlines to meet.

By Richard Poplak

The Decoder was a regular feature in the now-defunct Maverick magazine. It is republished here for the first time. Richard Poplak is a Canadian freelance writer and author who wrote his first book, Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White In Apartheid-Era South Africa about his childhood in this country. His latest book is The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World, and he is working on a couple of interesting new projects.