Bullshit: a modern art form, and more harmful than lies

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“If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself.”

– Kathleen Parker, a National Review online columnist and a former Sarah Palin supporter.

Bullshit is big at the moment. And the ubiquity and effects of this anti-science and anti-logic form of fallacious rhetoric or argumentum verbosium (proof by verbosity) are beginning to be taken seriously by philosophers and academics. Harry G Frankfurt, a moral philosopher and Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University developed a theoretical understanding of the entity, in his miniature best seller, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005).

Frankfurt thinks various forms of scepticism, which undermine our confidence in the value of determining what is true and what is false, could have caused the proliferation of bullshit in modern life. Maybe. But it could be that the proliferation of bullshit and the modern expansion of information are correlated: we have more information and better means of disseminating it than at any other point in history. And the race to gather information has left a trail of bullshit its wake: individuals lacking information frequently feel compelled to resort to concealing ignorance through the use of bullshit.

The media are responsible for the broadcasting of information and hence they provide the natural habitat of the bullshit artist. The media have a dual role: they supply the theatrical setting for the elaboration of bullshit – and then they can expose it. The already infamously embarrassing Sarah Palin-Katie Couric interview and the subsequent hilarious parody on Saturday Night Live are recent examples.

In Frankfurt’s analysis –

‘Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.’

So bullshit is almost inevitable during interviews, examinations and scientific conferences. Exposing the bullshit for what it is can be amusing. The interviewee or candidate is at considerable disadvantage: he or she is usually obligated to answer the question. A predictable quota of modest bullshit might be allowable at a certain level, while florid, relentless and nauseating bullshit (verbal diarrhoea) will not. At one end of the spectrum, the candidate of high integrity, for whom bullshit is an abomination, might risk appearing unimaginative, humourless, or even threatening. Such a person may have work to do to convince an unenlightened interviewer of their flexibility, but these people are worth seeking out. At the other end of the spectrum, unless the interviewer is vigilant, the clever and articulate bullshit artist may appear plausible enough.

Frankfurt alerts us to the notion of carefully wrought bullshit, the type that involves the thoughtful attention to detail that requires discipline and objectivity.

‘The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.’

In this, Frankfurt has identified a crucial development in the evolution of bullshit, what might be termed up-market bullshit. The modern world has produced a burgeoning guild of craftsmen so single-mindedly devoted to the purveyance of bullshit, that it is, for them, a religion, a way of life, a raison d’etre. We may even describe it as an art form, from which has grown an international academy of experts and pedagogues.

Some of the most monumental examples of the genre come from the world of contemporary art. Why is this? And why, by comparison, has music, as an art form, managed to remain largely uncontaminated? Perhaps it has to do with the complex relationship between money and vanity. Good taste in art might be an attribute of a cultivated person, so those with money and a tendency towards cultural ostentation are the conspicuous prey of those merchants who trade in the costly vanity of art acquisition. Market conditions have never been better: in a rapidly expanding middle-class, there is no shortage of money or of pretentiousness.

The bullshit artists who thrive in the art world will find it considerably more difficult to prosper in the field of music. Here, where progress is made slowly, where only by sustained study and disciplined practice over a period of many years, and from an early age, can anything much be achieved, talent cannot be concocted. Nothing can be faked: there is no bullshit in Bach – just have a listen to Hilary Hahn’s extraordinary Ciaccona from Partita No. 2 for solo violin.

We are more tolerant of bullshit than we are of lies. The distinction is important. According to Frankfurt, there are notable characteristics that distinguish the bullshitter from the liar: ‘His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point.’ Unlike the liar, the bullshitter is wholly unconcerned with the truth: it is irrelevant to him.

It is because of this that Frankfurt regards bullshit as more harmful than lies. The falsehood of the bullshitter is –

‘…. more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, colour, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist”.’

Thanks to Harry G Frankfurt, we now have the theoretical framework and tools for recognising and evaluating bullshit. On Bullshit is essential reading for the sceptically inclined.