Skip to comments.This column is great, trust me
Posted on 02/26/2005 7:12:43 AM PST by Lando Lincoln
THE WRONG sort of snow finally pushed Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, over the edge. Enraged with Russias hopeless weather forecasters, he has vowed to fine them for any more inaccurate, misleading or unreliable predictions. As reported in yesterdays Times, he admonished them in the following, memorable terms: You are giving us bullshit.
On the other side of the world, Harry G. Frankfurt, the moral philosopher and professor emeritus at Princeton University, would have smiled sagely at that remark. After decades of exploration in the thorniest thickets of philosophy, he has just published a slim treatise entitled On Bullshit (Princeton University Press), an earnest intellectual inquiry into this most pungent and slippery of philosophical concepts. His short theory of bullshit is a testament for our times.
We all think we can identify bullshit. We know when we are talking bullshit ourselves, and we have all been guilty of it at times, in the pub or the pulpit, though some of us produce more than others. Politics thrives on bullshit, while lawyers, advertisers, public relations consultants and talk show hosts produce the stuff in its purest form. Very occasionally, columnists have been known to lapse into it. Every language in the world has a word for it. But what is bullshit? The concept is universally recognised, yet as Professor Frankfurt writes, the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain, after all, not only unanswered but unasked.
He begins, like all good philosophers, by defining what bullshit is not. Bullshit is dishonest, yet it is not necessarily mendacious. The bullshit artist may not tell you the truth (though he may do so inadvertently), but he is not deliberately lying. This is because bullshit cares nothing for truth or falsehood, accuracy or error, and that is its force and danger.
Both the liar and the honest man must have regard for truth, the former to subvert it and the latter to propagate it. Bullshit, by contrast, is fundamentally unconcerned with truth or falsehood, but only with appearance, effect and persuasion, however transitory. Yuri Luzhkov was not accusing the Moscow weather forecasters of lying, or yet of trying to predict the weather and honestly failing; he was accusing them of not caring about the true weather. The essence of bullshit is getting away with it, with persuading listeners or readers of a sincerity that is, by definition, phoney. The bullshit artist simply does not care about truth: He pays no attention to it at all, writes Professor Frankfurt. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.
Yet we tolerate bullshit, even though we feign to disregard it. Lies make us morally enraged; mistakes, even honest ones, are unacceptable. The politician or businessman who lies to us, or fouls up, must go; but he can bullshit us with almost perfect impunity. We shrug, we may even grin ruefully, but in our craven hearts we know we are being fed a bluff, on-the-hoof hokum, and we do not care.
Perhaps our ancestors were just as susceptible to bullshit, purveying it and accepting it, as we are. Indeed, as the late Ronald Bell, the Tory MP, once observed, the connection between humbug and politics is too long established to be challenged. Yet bullshit has surely expanded as fast, if not faster, than the growth of communications generally. The internet is a natural septic tank for it. More than ever, public figures are required to opine on everything, even (and perhaps especially) when they have no idea what they are talking about. During the year when I was parliamentary sketchwriter, I cannot remember a single occasion on which an MP conceded ignorance on any subject whatsoever. Professor Frankfurt is clinical and devastating: The production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a persons obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.
In a sense, the quest to define bullshit is the oldest one in the philosophers book. Socrates himself explored the tension between rhetoric or sophistry, arguments intended to persuade regardless of whether they were true, and the deeper quest for understanding through philosophy. In this respect, it is worth noting that the term bull, with a similar meaning, is probably far older, etymologically, than the modern bullshit: the original word seems to have come from the Latin bullire, to boil, bubble or froth. At its source, then, the term has nothing to do with barnyard excrement, but rather the appropriate evocation of pure hot air.
Bullshit makes quite good intellectual fertiliser. Indeed, the American term bull session means an occasion to bat around outrageous ideas without concern for accuracy. But cumulatively, and unchecked, bullshit undermines what Professor Frankfurt calls the possibility of knowing how things really are. Improvised, instantly disposable pseudo-knowledge becomes more important than reality. In a culture where bullshit is endemic, political debate, intellectual argument and appeals for our money and our votes, are all judged on whether they are persuasive, rather than accurate, honest or realistic. Appearance becomes more important than objective fact; we hark to the purveyor of cogent humbug, and sceptically wonder whether anything is true.
If there is one aspect of Professor Frankfurts thesis that does not go far enough, it is in exploring the distinctively public nature of the subject. Bullshit is not a private matter, but a display, deployed to convey a specific, positive impression to others, regardless of accuracy. It is, in essence, spin.
When Tony Blair says he is a pretty straight kind of guy, he is implicitly asking his listeners to set aside notions of objective truth and believe in his sincerity. This has become the currency of our political culture. In a world of bullshit, truth seems unknowable, so we are asked to trust the persuasive authenticity of our leaders, who offer to be true, not to the facts, but to themselves. Yet human nature, moral philosophers agree, is impossible to know. In Professor Frankfurts concluding words: Our natures are elusively insubstantial . . . and insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
With the election we face a fresh torrent of sincerity; but at least the Moscow mayor and the Princeton philosopher have teamed up to prove that it is possible to cut the crap, and seize the bull by the horns.
I did. :-)
What a bunch of BS.
In the immortal words of P.J. O'Rourke, the three branches of the American system: "Money, television and bullshit."
Just don't feed us any more BullS@@t.......
Accuse me of bullsh*tt*ng, but somehow, me thinks our literary forefathers are rolling over in their graves.
Bump for further digestion.
Well, this at least explains Bill Clinton and the Green movement.
LOL, and I was SURE you'd changed the title. Good one, and very (dare I say it?) true.
Brings to mind, the old chestnut, "What's the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?" One begins, "Once upon a time", the other, "And this is no bull$h*t!"
As opposed to horseshit.
Immensely. I never thought that I would see the word "bullshit" used so repeatedly in one post without giving some of our more sensitive moderators apoplexy.
I can imagine a sudden epidemic of blue faces behind the curtain, but with some measure of restraint, one would hope.
I have never given it much thought, but clearly I have grasped the true essence of bullshit all my life simply by instinct.
And it bears only the most tenuous connections to truth and lies. It explains, clearly why we all claim to know it when we hear it, even though we can't define it, exactly.
This little essay has, in addition reminded me of the richness of our language, and the subtleties of changes of meaning between seemingly related words.
Good way to start off a Saturday.
That's a variation on the fairy-tale/war story distinction (or vice versa): a fairy-tale begins "Once upon a time" and a war story begins, "No shit, I was THERE . . .". ;)
My favorite is:
I can't remember the name of this-- Someone's Law, I think:
"There are only two substances in the universe: magic and bullshit."
"There ain't no magic."
The personification of this is Bill Clinton. Damn! the man brought tears to my eyes, with his bullshit.
I remember clearly one speech at Georgetown which was so persuasive, so sincere, so perfect an example of bullshit that when he was done I wanted to rush out and do, or undo, whatever it was that he was pushing that day, until, after a few seconds, the veil of persuasion slipped entirely and I snapped out of it.
Every time that happened, I found myself muttering to myself, "... and people wonder how Nazi Germany came about".
Professor Frankfurt's work ought to be an inspiration to us all!
Seek truth, not bullshit! LOL!
|"sincerity itself is bullshit.
How did Orwell miss that one?
I agree....and I remember numerous times when he had me being pulled in - and I detested the guy!
The most dangerous liar is one who makes factual statements designed to mislead. That way, they can internally regard and externally defend what they said as "the truth."
It's the worst kind of lie, of which Clinton and Arnold are masters.
Don't know why that came to mind. Probably says something about how my warped mind works, but, oh well. I have fun.
I think the blogshere functions as a fairly good bullshit detector. Especially with its instant feedback feature.
fun (and true) article
Full of bull.......well done!
I did, and through the miracle of E-mail, many others will too.
Thanks for the ping!
Thanks for the new tag!!!
I had to edit the heck out of it, but I think my restatement gets the gestalt.
[Freepmail me to get on or off this Not-A-Ping-List.]
>>>Mel Brooks in "History of the World",
Don't forget the scene where Mel Brooks and Gregory Hines disguise themselves as senators to escape from the Imperial guards.
BROOKS: "They're coming! Quick, act like a senator!"
[Both pull their cloaks over their faces.]
BROOKS: "Bullshit, bullshit, AND bullshit!"
HINES: "Bullshit, bullshit."
I counted 29 Bullshits used in the article. LOL
My favorite TV show is called Bullsh!t, too. It's done by Penn and Teller; it's hilarious, informative and libertarian-leaning. They can lay it on really good on EPA and PETA.
The world has gone all to Hell
Even the London Times peddles foul language.
I skipped the rest of the article
after reaching the first B.S.
I think there's someone who beat this guys rant by what, 29 years?
Yup, and that'd be Peter Finch's character in "Network".
The one & only.
...Howard Beal. ;^)
One mans magic is another mans engineering.
Thanks for the ping Lando
A very interesting article, but I doubt that it will be of any benefit to me, as I always fastidiously and punctiliously tell the absolute, unvarnished truth.
"A very interesting article, but I doubt that it will be of any benefit to me, as I always fastidiously and punctiliously tell the absolute, unvarnished truth."
B U L L $ H I T
" I got tired of the bull$hit"
"I would like at this moment to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks time because of poor ratings. Since this show is the only thing I had going for me in my life, I've decided to kill myself. I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. So tune in next Tuesday. That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that. Fifty share, easy."
"Yesterday I announced on this program that I was going to commit public suicide. Admittedly an act of madness. Well, I'll tell you what happened: I just ran out of bullshit."
"All human beings are becoming humanoids. All over the world, not just in America. We're just getting there faster since we're the most advanced country."
"We'll tell you anything you want to hear, we lie like hell."
"You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here, you're beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal! You do! Why, whatever the tube tells you: you dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing, WE are the illusion!"
"Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park!"
"Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube! This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation; this tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers; this tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people, and that's why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America; there's a new chairman of the board, a man called Frank Hackett, sitting in Mr. Ruddy's office on the twentieth floor. And when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network!?"
"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad... Everybody's out of work, or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the street, and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it."
"All I know is, you've got to get mad! You've got to say, 'I'm a human being, goddamn it! My life has value!'"
"I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell: 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!'"
LOL! I'm gonna have to get this one for Sir SuziQ! He'll get a kick out of it.
Would you believe ... parsimoniously?
I was being a "knee-jerk reactionary".....: )
You do realize I was expecting to get that reaction?
Of course, nobody could have set the table better!
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