The fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.
-Harry Frankfurt, ”On Bullshit”.
To say that the post-modern world in which we live is awash in a sea of bullshit is of course to state the painfully obvious. Would you every take a lawyer’s statement about the facts of a case at face value? Would you ever assume that a politician’s presentation of an issue is completely free from ideological bias or economics influence?
We are so conditioned to thinking that everything is bullshit that the default analytical posture is to question the underlying motive of anything. We do this because we acknowledge either consciously or unconsciously the truth of a situation is unknowable. What is the correct tax policy for the United States to pursue in the future? It’s impossible to know because the future is impossible to predict. And yet people who know they don’t know spend a great deal of time and effort to convince you otherwise.
So why do we care so much? Why do we care so much about politics, for example, when we know that everyone discussing it is, essentially, bullshitting us? Because the function of bullshit in public discourse is to shift power. We when participate in the argument, we participate in the shifting of power, which is itself an illusion of power. If I tried to convince you that taxing the rich is a bad idea or a good idea, all that should matter is my participation, my attempt to move the needle.
But that isn’t the interesting question. The interesting question is why do they continue to bullshit when they know we know what they are saying is bullshit.
And the answer to that question is because they know it works. And the reason it works is because we like to have what we already believe to be true validated by some external source, and because what we believe to be true is easily influence, manipulated and changed. But the reason all of this is true is much more complicated.
Let’s talk about English class.
In most English classes in high school and college, you are asked to read a book, and then offer an opinion on the book’s theme or meaning. This was always a great class because opinions are easy to come by and you can’t be faulted for your opinion.
Remember that class?
This is a slightly different English class that you probably didn’t have:
“English 102 aims to show you some ways to read fiction more deeply, to come up with interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed, intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction…You’ll end up doing more work in here than in other sections of 102, probably.”
That’s from the syllabus of a 1994 freshman English class taught by David Foster Wallace.
Wallace is emphasizing tunderstanding the mechanics of a thing in order to develop “informed, intelligent reasons” for your opinions about it. The reason bullshit is still peddled to a seemingly knowing and self-aware public is because the public cannot develop “informed, intelligent reasons” for the bullshit. In other words, their response to bullshit is not based on reason, and there for it isn’t rational. It’s irrational. Because of this ignorance, the formation of opinions among the members of the public depends on all the intangibles we’ve written about on this site ad nauseum: psychology, wish-fulfillment, fantasy, objectification, resentment, groupthink, etc. Those are all bad reasons to arrive at any conclusion, including the right conclusions.
Bullshit fills the void in discourse opened up by ignorance. And because the public is incapable of forming intelligent opinions on almost all subjects, the discourse of any topic becomes a matter of marketing. Voters are routinely asked by pollsters if they agree with a particular candidate’s statement about policy. The poll question is not asking if you think the policy is good or bad. The question is really asking if you are persuaded by the candidate’s particular presentation of the policy. Politicians rightfully do not use the polls to set policy, because the people being polled are idiots when it comes to questions of policy. Instead, they rely on the polls to calibrate their campaigning, i.e. the marketing of the policy.
This doesn’t mean that if everyone is educated, they will all agree all the time. But it does mean that the public discourse itself will proceed rationally. A discussion about Obama’s tax policy would become a discussion about the ethics and feasibility of using the tax code to effect economic and social policy. But that discussion will not include either of the following sentences: “Obama’s a muslim” and “Liberals want a handout.”
This happens in science to, whenever vested interest are involved. We are presented in the media with endless debates about global warming. But global warming should be a scientifically quantifiable fact. But presenting any of the mountains of data is meaningless to a public that is grotesquely scientifically illiterate. So instead we have actors and oil companies trying to sell their particular narratives to the public using television commercials. Literally.
Bullshit is not the problem, bullshit is the symptom of the problem. The problem is our collective inability to educate ourselves enough to form intelligent opinions. We have lost the ability <i>to judge</i>.