by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 1 2017,
My first article published in a Sri Lankan magazine was for LMD nearly ten years ago. My subject was truth and lies and broken promises in politics and business. The immediate trigger for the article was my reading of Harry G Frankfurt’s best-selling little book (67 pages) On Bullshit. Since reading Frankfurt, I have also read a book by another philosopher, my Facebook friend Stephen Law – Believing Bullshit. Stephen goes into a lot more detail with practical examples of bullshit and what to do about it. Frankfurt is one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers. This could be a false memory but I seem to recall that the LMD editors were too squeamish to print the word ‘bullshit’.
Ten years on, bullshit is still around and still being written about. Evan Davis has published Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, Buzzfeed correspondent James Ball weighs in with Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, and political journalist Matthew d’Ancona contributes Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back.
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth as word of the year, with the definition “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Trump spokesperson Kelly-Anne Conway has come up with the phrase “alternative facts” to explain her boss’s s bizarre claims about the weather and the crowds on the day of his inauguration.
Lies, Humbug and Bullshit
LMD could have substituted the word “humbug”, which Frankfurt considers a genteel alternative. There is a subtle difference between bullshit and lies (Sisela Bok’s book Lying is a must-read). Frankfurt argues that bullshit is speech intended to persuade, without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter only cares whether or not the listener is persuaded. Frankfurt argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. Bullshit need not be untrue at all. Bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything is true. They change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.
Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. Bullshit is everywhere, because people must create prose about things they don’t actually understand.
Entitlement to Opinion
A cliché on social media is “opinions are like arseholes; everyone’s got one and they all stink”. The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.” Der Spiegel wrote about Trump: “He doesn’t read. He doesn’t bother to peruse important files and intelligence reports and knows little about the issues that he has identified as his priorities. His decisions are capricious and they are delivered in the form of tyrannical decrees.”
Thanks to Facebook, bullshit is unavoidable when people are convinced that they must have opinions about events and conditions in all parts of the world, about more or less anything and everything – so they rant about things they know virtually nothing about. However, Facebook and the internet in general are tools and we perhaps should not blame them for the way they are used. Columbia University researchers analysed 1.3m articles published online before the US presidential election. The report’s authors insist that it is neither fake news nor Facebook that poses the real challenge to the mainstream media, but a “propaganda and disinformation-rich environment”.
Thanks to parlous economic conditions, newspapers cannot afford to employ reporters to dig out the facts. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.
It seems to me that there is more bullshit around than there was ten years ago. Look at the current President of the United States. Many have written about Trump’s incessant lying but his modus operandi seems to me to be more akin to bullshit. Frankfurt wrote: “The bullshitter is involved in a program of obfuscation, not merely the substitution of truth for lies.”
Trump uses Twitter ceaselessly and undermines the efforts of his spin doctors. Trump’s election and the Brexit vote relied on distrust of experts and disregard for knowledge. There are so many opportunities for people to sound off without knowing what they are talking about. It is disturbing when the person sounding off without knowledge is the president of the United States. As I write, I am looking at footage showing the leaders of NATO countries tittering in bemusement as Trump holds forth mistaken views about how NATO works. Trump’s claim that American allies are “underpaying” or owe NATO money has been repeatedly debunked.
Principles of Conversation
Yet another philosopher, HP Grice (1913-1988), described in his 1975 book Logic and Conversation, ‘maxims’ that are assumed by people engaged in conversation. The co-operative principle means that speakers and listeners assume that their interlocutors stick to certain speech norms. There is a kind of unstated contract about quantity, quality, relevance and manner. If the maxims are violated you get bullshit: quantity – too much or too little information; quality – utterances that are intentionally false or lack evidence; relevance – shifting ground from the topic under discussion; manner – utterances that are ambiguous, unnecessarily prolix or disorderly. Grice could be describing Trump. The elements Grice outlines may be added to the condition of the bullshitter’s indifference to the ideal of truth. Another philosopher, Bernard Williams, brings trust into the equation. Williams sees any person lied to or who has bullshit tipped onto him or her as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage.
Blind Faith and Bullshit
Frankfurt comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion: ‘sincerity is bullshit’. Frankfurt rests his case on a critique of those who claim for sincerity a position formerly occupied by a trust in objectivity. He disputes the view that our nature is a more reliable guide to truth than ‘facts’. He has no time for faith or gut feeling, seeing those as part of bullshit.
Stephen Law takes this up and offers strategies for avoiding getting trapped in what he calls the black holes of bullshit – belief systems constructed in such a way that unwary passers-by can be imprisoned. Even the most intelligent and educated, not just the ignorant, are potentially vulnerable. Beware! You might think you are smart but you too can be bullshitted.
I am myself guilty of churnalism and also of having opinions about events and conditions in all parts of the world. I have been confidently condemning Jeremy Corbyn for voting against the Good Friday Agreement. I believed it because I had read it so many times on the internet. I am a bullshitter! I may have to eat my hat. According to Channel4 Corbyn did, in fact, vote for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He voted against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Here is the relevant extract from Hansard showing that Corbyn did support the Good Friday Agreement.
My apologies to Mr Corbyn.