(This post is part of the 30 for 30 Challenge)
At the start of every political election year, I like to remind myself that most of what I am about to hear coming out of the mouths of political candidates is a very pure and refined form of bullshit. Bullshit is a term that has been in the lexicon for quite some time, and it is a word that is thrown around quite haphazardly. “Don’t bullshit me!”, we often exclaim. But what is bullshit, really?
To remind myself of the meaning of this word, and in a biannual effort to cope with the piles of it heaped upon my years every election year, it has become a tradition of mine during this time to read a very short, and poignant book called On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt. This taut, well argued little book, wastes no words in getting at the crux of the matter, all while maintaining a tinge of humor.
One of the most salient features in our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation for what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.
After exploring the roots of the word, and its various relations to other terms, Frankfurt very clearly explains the difference between one who bullshits and one who lies. The distinction is very important, and is what I believe to be the cause for concern with some of our current presidential front runners:
Someone who lies, and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.
With regards to those who would deny climate change, the following passage is an apt fit:
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.
In place of objective inquiry towards an ideal of correctness, there is for the bullshitter instead an ideal of “personal sincerity”:
Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself…And insofar as this is the case, sincerity is itself bullshit.
I am reminded here of the multitude of politicians who, in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue of climate change, fain ignorance and retreat to a position of humble sincerity in claiming that they are “no scientist”, but are merely speaking from “personal experience” and how they “feel” about the matter. They have no real interest in the truth to begin with, and are merely stalling in order to avoid making their political careers very difficult to manage in the face of the inevitable truth. They will have to face the music eventually on this issue, but in the meantime, they simply play dumb and hope it will go away.
Okay. I think I’ve delivered my healthy dose of cynicism for one day. Until next time.