The phenomenon of bullshit
We are probably living in a golden era of bullshit. Wherever you look, you will find it in abundance. It seems the only thing certain these days is death, taxes, and well, bullshit. Maybe bullshit (or BS, for short) was always present in the affairs of humankind and was only lacking sufficient outlets for its spread. Whatever the case might be, there is no escaping it.
A striking feature of BS is that everyone takes part in creating and spreading it, but no one would ever admit to it. Bullshit is always something that other people do, never us. Which is probably why we’re so confident of being able to detect and avoid being taken in by the BS of others.
Despite its ubiquity, BS lacks a precise definition. Most people are good at sniffing out (pun intended) BS at a subconscious level, but ask them what it exactly is and they begin to flounder. It’s similar to how a US Supreme Court judge defined pornography in the absence of a technical description:
I know it when I see it.
What is bullshit, really?
As a result of this confusion, BS has come to mean many things, most commonly nonsense or outright lies. But, as we will see, BS is neither of this. Firstly, because nonsense by definition is something that doesn’t make sense. But incomprehensibility is not a fault BS can be accused of, simply because there’s never any confusion about what is being conveyed by a bullshitter.
The other definition of BS — that it is a lie — too doesn’t do it justice. A lie is a lie, and there’s no better way to call it. The difference between BS and falsehoods is why a popular myth-busting show was named Bullshit! and not Lies!. Here’s Penn Jillete, one of the hosts of the show:
‘…if one calls people liars and quacks one can be sued…but ‘bullshit’, oddly, is safe.’
This is so because BS is a strange animal: not a lie, per se, but also not quite the truth. BS has an unmistakable whiff, much like food that is just at the edge of going bad, but is not lethal enough yet to make you sick. We might better understand what BS is by studying why and when people indulge in it.
Why do we bullshit?
In a delightful little book called On Bullshit, Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt dissects the phenomenon of bullshit to reveal certain powerful ideas.
According to Frankfurt, BS is deployed for a simple reason: to convey a certain image of the speaker, or to get away with something. In other words, the intent of BS is to gain an advantage without really deceiving others about facts. This is why politicians, CEO’s and assorted celebrities are often considered bullshitters par excellence, because everything they say is in service of their public image.
Frankfurt’s theory is that the bullshitter isn’t exactly telling a lie, because he is not actively rejecting the truth; he’s simply indifferent towards what the truth is. This way, bullshitting is closer to bluffing than to lying. As poker aficionados know, a bluff in poker is not technically a lie, but just a fake stance taken for personal advantage. That’s exactly what the bullshitter is doing — faking it, without actually lying.
The most apt example of misrepresentation-without-actually-lying is probably advertising. You can accuse ads of being misleading, but you can almost never prove they are propagating falsehoods. That’s why advertising could very well be the most common form of institutionalized BS allowed in society today.
Lying is a craft, bullshitting is an art
Frankfurt finally nails down the difference between lying and bullshitting by comparing the former to craftsmanship, and the latter to art. Craftsmanship is all about precision and being aware of your constraints. A cabinet-maker, for instance, has to align the planes correctly and hammer in the nails with accuracy. In the same way, lying requires you to know — or at least attempt to know — what the truth is and where it resides. Once you know this, lying is about replacing the truth cleanly with the lie.
Bullshitting, on the other hand, is more like art because it has fewer constraints on it. Since it is less about a specific truth, bullshitting has a wider canvas to play with. There is more scope for imagination, flair and improvisation. That’s why, as Frankfurt reckons, the concept of the ‘bullshit artist’ exists.
Why bullshit is more harmful than lies
Ultimately, both liars and bullshitters are hiding something, but there’s a crucial difference.
The liar hides the fact that he is wants us to believe something he knows to be false. The bullshitter, meanwhile, hides the fact that he is indifferent to the truth or falsity of his statements.
In this way, a lie is still respectful of the truth because a lie can be told only when you believe what the truth is. In fact, truth and lies are two sides of the same coin since they both require an accurate understanding of reality. The only point at which they part is how to describe that reality to others.
Compared to a liar, the bullshitter is almost like a nihilist — he doesn’t care whether his words describe reality or not. His only concern is himself. By not paying any attention to the way things are, the bullshitter devalues reality itself and begins to lose the ability to see the world as it truly is.
This apathy towards the truth is what makes BS so harmful. Because when we can’t even agree on what is real, how do we ever find common ground?
Why is there so much bullshit?
So why is there so much of BS today that we are literally drowning in it? As Frankfurt explains:
(bullshit arises when) “the obligations and opportunities to speak on a topic exceed knowledge”
The internet has democratized bullshit. Anyone with an opinion can now effortlessly project it to the world, not because they have something worthwhile to say, but just because they can. Conversely, these billions of connected devices need to be fed with information which means that both experts and entertainers have to step up to meet the demand. And when quantity takes precedence over quality, bullshit is the inevitable result.
Furthermore, there seems to be an unspoken expectation that if you want to be considered a responsible citizen of the world you must have an opinion on everything. Distancing yourself from the frenzy is simply not an option. However, the fact is we just don’t understand issues outside our areas of competence well enough. So when pushed into a corner, all we can come up with is, you guessed it, bullshit.
What makes it worse is that we seem to be living in a ‘post-truth’ world, where only your personal interpretation of the truth matters, not what is objectively true. Those who talk with the most conviction or have a larger audience can create an alternate universe where reality is dispensable. As we saw earlier, this complete indifference to the objective truth is exactly what bullshit is all about.
How to curb bullshit
Why is bullshit unacknowledged as a problem? The answer, according to Frankfurt, depends on how we react to it. We are more intolerant of lies because they feel like a personal attack. Bullshit, meanwhile, gives rise only to impatience, or maybe just irritation.
But just because the effects of BS are mild in isolation, doesn’t mean we should ignore its spread. When the BS begins to add up, meaning begins to break down. This is why we must commit to staying true to the facts. Sure, it’s not always possible to know what is objectively true, but the admission of ignorance itself is a form of truth.
Furthermore, we must stop letting our beliefs define our identities. By not being wedded to our beliefs we can resist the urge to use bullshit as a defense against threatening facts.
Finally, we must resist falling into patterns of behaviour and speech simply because we want to be accepted as part of a group. The compulsions of a group can often cause us to sacrifice objectivity in favour of what is politically correct, thus sowing the seeds for bullshit.
The rise of bullshit might seem like a trivial problem, but it is usually the first symptom of a system that is moving towards dysfunction.
Humans need meaning to function and thrive. Bullshit, however, has nothing to offer in that department. And that is exactly why we must fight it.