our society’s state of affairs and the President of BS
Four things you might not know
- The author of the bestselling book, On Bullshit is Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University.
- Frankfurt writes that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies because eventually the excess of bullshit erodes the practitioner and the society’s capacity to tell the truth, which is different than lying. Lying accepts that it is not true and implies that there is a truth, whereas bullshitters change the rules so that true and false are irrelevant (e.g., “fake news,” “alternative facts”).
- On Bullshit, published as an essay in 1989 and followed as a book in 2005, defines bullshit as if Frankfurt knew what, and who, was going to become America’s Bullshitter-in-Chief in 2017. The theory and its application to Trump is alarmingly accurate, intellectually anchored, culturally important and a cautionary tale of a faltering society.
- Bullshit with the power and reach of an authoritarian threatens to turn debilitating memes into a contagion that undermines trust, integrity, morality and fundamental human values.
(6 minute read)
“The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” – Harry Frankfurt.
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this.” These are the first two sentences in Frankfurt’s perspicacious essay On Bullshit, and almost thirty years after it was first written, it has never been more relevant. So much of the fake news and media babble spewed ad nauseam is bullshit that’s becoming more and more acceptable in an intellectually dumbed-down society. We are drowning in the deep end of a bullshit cesspool. We know it. We live it. And all of us, in small bits and pieces are participating in it, contributing to it or at the very least accepting it as the “new norm.” Of course, we all think we’re good detectors of bullshit but that’s like claiming a fish is a good detector of water. We’re up to our human intake gills in bullshit and losing our capacity to detect it and avoid drowning in it.
One fish asked the other, “How do you like the water?” The other replied, “What’s water?”
A fish asked Donald Trump, “How do you like the bullshit?” He replied, “What’s bullshit?”
On Bullshit is a short book, an 8,000 word essay, and Frankfurt’s purpose is to develop a theory because, as he says, “we have no theory.” His perspective is rooted in philosophy and psychology and he delivers it with wit, wisdom and common sense. In view of the evolving alternative world of Trumpism, it’s an enlightening must-read.
Better late than never
In May 2016, Frankfurt wrote a brief commentary in Time, based on his theory, and he still had no idea Trump would become president. Citing Trump as an example, he didn’t foresee or ever imagine how the power of bullshit would lift the ultimate bullshitter into the White House. He wrote, “Trump provides a robust example of someone who is neither well-informed nor especially intelligent. Moreover, even apart from these rather egregious cognitive deficiencies … his presidential campaign has been – to put it mildly – quite unconvincing.”
Yikes, if a bright a guy with a PhD in philosophy can misread the Trump bullshit phenomenon, it’s no wonder 1/4 of America did (3-of-4 eligible voters did not vote for Trump – see earlier blog: Why does everyone ignore the numbers …). Is bullshit that convincing? Frankfurt admits, “What is somewhat more difficult to establish is whether his [Trump’s] unmistakably dubious statements are deliberate lies or whether they are just bullshit.”
Bullshit is the real enemy
Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and bullshitting goes to the essence of western society. Since our childhood, lying has been on a Biblical scale, perpetuated for some by the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Exodus 20: 16). And Judaism attaches a great deal to honesty: Jeremiah 9:4 – “One man cheats the other, They will not speak truth; They have trained their tongues to speak falsely; They wear themselves out working iniquity.” And Islam too: “And do not say that of which you have no knowledge.” (Quran 17:36). An abhorrence of lying is embedded in our religious psyche and we have been taught to reject it, even though we struggle throughout life not to lie.
But bullshitting is different. To one degree or another it has been with us even before Hesoid bullshitted the Greeks that Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humankind. But Frankfurt may be the only writer to eloquently describe how our innate dislike for lying makes bullshitting far more acceptable; thus, far more dangerous. Especially when it’s ensconced at the top of a culture where it becomes trickle-down-emulation.
“Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”
Anyone who has read any biographical books on Donald Trump might immediately suspect the quotation above was from Fred Trump, advising the young Donald. It’s not. Frankfurt took it from a novel, Dirty Story written by Eric Ambler (1968) and quotes the character named Arthur Abdel Simpson who recalls advice he received from his father: “Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I still remember him very well and some of the things he used to say…. One of the first things he taught me was, “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”
“You are a killer … you are a king … you are a killer … you are a king…” – Fred Trump (to his boys).
Education at our father’s knee can dominate our lives and as Donald has said (like many a son), “My father taught me everything I know.”And we can be sure that Fred Trump’s “teachings” had a formative effect on Donald who learned to do anything to become “king” (more an emperor with no clothes), and also on the eldest heir-apparent son, “Freddy” who, as a “killer,” drank himself to death by age 43 rather than try to become the king his father wanted – demanded. As the old adage states, “Show me screwed up children and I’ll show you screwed up parents.”
So we have a president, who like a fish, has only known a very limited environment (family real estate business dominated by the father) and who does not adapt well so continually creates an environment he knows, filling it with bullshit in order to be in a comfort zone, which includes family members and loyal supporters – yes people … loyal bullshitters.
“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.” – Frankfurt.
Supplicants at the altar of bullshit
When you’re the boss of a real estate empire or the President of the United States, there will always be plenty of ready, willing and able disciples – from kiss-your-ass children to ruin-their-careers sycophants – all in the cathedral of bullshit. For Trump, it starts with his family, subservient wives and supplicant children, even a real estate clone as a son-in-law. Then come the career bootlickers and the political Judases, all opportunists trading integrity and self-worth for a life raft in Trump’s flotsam of bullshit. They see a chance to manipulate an ignorant narcissist by defending and perpetuating his bullshit, regardless the cost to themselves or the country. It’s a bad Faustian quid pro quo.
“Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies.” – Frankfurt.
Frankfurt’s theory proffers that bullshitting is far more damaging than lying. Because a liar is directly, or by implication, stating that there is a truth. That’s why people lie, to oppose the truth. On the other hand, the bullshitters do not acknowledge the truth, they ignore it and don’t care. Frankfurt says, “The bullshitter changes the rules so that claims of truth and falsity are irrelevant.” Liars, at least, acknowledge that there is an opposing truth.
A dangerous cultural meme
Richard Dawkins coined the word meme in his groundbreaking, 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins states that a meme is the cultural analog to genes and self-replicates and mutates ideas and practices from one person to another until they become ingrained in the culture. Memes can be good, bad or ugly, they’re simply building blocks in a culture, and our civilization.
“The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet … but a new kind of replicator has recently emerged … it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from suitable Greet roots … abbreviated to “meme.’
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots, or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” – Richard Dawkins
If we connect the thinking of Dawkins and Frankfurt, we could say that bullshit is akin to unwanted semen transmitting cultural memes from “brain to brain via a process … [of] imitation.” Patriotic memes can range across cultures from “Hail Caesar” and “Heil Hitler” to “God Bless America” and “We the North.” Racism is perpetuated through language and symbols that become memes. Religion dominates lives and societies through symbolic memes and dogma. Lives sometimes get a little uplift with words and catch-phrases like “awesome” and “Have a nice day” (even though it’s usually said with no meaning, it’s just a bullshit meme). And Trump propagates a continuing stream of bullshit that threatens to establish debilitating memes, aided and abetted by a sycophantic hive of worker bees – from bullshitters like Spicer, Conway and Nunes to no-balls guys like Tillerson, Matiss and McMaster (having no balls and abdicating core values is essentially a blatant support of bullshit).
“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” – Harry Frankfurt.
Dawkins established the power of memes and Frankfurt demonstrated the deleterious effects of bullshit in our culture, and together they spell out a tortuous time for the world under the Bullshitter-In-Chief, Donald Trump. All a principled-grounded, value-respecting, intelligent, discerning person can do is question, filter, parse and reject the endless, unmitigated, spewing of bullshit that is, in fact, becoming the frightening, dumbed-down norm in our society.
- The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, p. 192