“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” — Harry G. Frankfurt
In 1986, philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt wrote a short essay with an incredibly telling title, “On Bullshit”. It was his reflection on the current state of society, and its predominant form of communication.
The definition of bullshit that he gives distinguishes it from outright lying. Instead, bullshit is a form of persuasion that is not concerned with the truth. Its only aim is to convince.
A bullshitter is someone who doesn’t care whether whatever they are saying is true or false. The only thing that matters to them is whether their audience is persuaded.
In that way, a bullshitter differs from a liar. A liar knows the truth, but wants to conceal it. A bullshitter just does not care.
What they are saying could be true, or it could be false. It does not matter. As long as it has the intended effect, it’s all good. The ends justify the means.
In many ways, Frankfurt’s essay is an incredibly powerful analysis of what is happening today. Modern politics is all about bullshit.
Bullshitter in Chief
“I would build a great wall, and no one builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great wall and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.” — Donald J. Trump
In today’s world of “alternative facts” bullshit is everywhere. Frankfurt’s treatise is best exemplified by the current US president, Donald J. Trump.
If you look at his rhetoric, you see a man who is unconcerned with whether what he says is true or false. Rather, what he looks for is the effect. Does it serve his ultimate purpose?
With Trump’s only concern being the promotion of Donald, his statements are geared to make an impact. Frankfurt writes that serial bullshitters engaged in self-promotion don’t seek to arrive at accurate representations of a common world.
Instead they are trying to convey an alternative ideal. That of appearing sincere. As Frankfurt states of the bullshitter, “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.”
In many ways, faking sincerity is a favorite tactic of many a rabble-rouser and populist. “It’s just Donald being Donald”, as they say. This has a powerful effect on the average voter. Blinded by halo effect, their minds are drawn towards the character.
The bullshitter uses and discards arguments as they see fit. Donald Trump is a master at that. Examining the evolution of his “build the wall” argument, you can see how this works in real time.
Trump’s arguments and reasons for the wall evolved throughout his campaign, and after he was elected. He has changed his words so often that it is difficult to follow.
At various points, he has stated that it was going to be paid for by Mexico, it was going to be an all-concrete wall, then that it was going to have fences, and later that natural barriers would suffice.
He changed the cost figures by orders of billions several times. He even shut down government for it, saying he was “proud to shut down the government for border security.”
As James Ball writes in the book “Post-Truth: How bullshit conquered the world”, “Trump’s versatility in generating half-truth, untruth and outright spectacular mendacity borders on genius.”
Bullshit is everywhere
“Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.” — Boris Johnson
However, we have to be careful not to blind ourselves and believe that Donald Trump is the only bullshitter in town. Bullshit has no color, political leaning, or sex. It is found on all sides of the political spectrum, and in many different walks of life and politics.
On both sides of the aisle, you have two types of people, the bullshit artists and the true believers. The true believers are convinced that they know the truth, and that their truth is the only one.
The bullshit artists on the other hand don’t care about the truth. They adapt their rhetoric in any way the wind blows.
Both types are dangerous in their own way. The true believers harden the discourse, making any type of compromise impossible. The bullshitters ride the wave of discontent in order to serve their own ends.
The US has a long history of struggles between ideologues (the true believers) and bullshitters. Sometimes, the bullshitters would be using the true believers. At other times, it was the other way around. Often, the interplay between them has worked to heighten tensions.
A very recent case study of how this works comes from the UK. In 2016, the electorate voted to take the country out of the EU by a very slight margin. In what way, no one knew.
The entire campaign was a perfect example of how a marriage between ideologues and bullshitters works. There was an interesting cast of characters.
You had Nigel Farage, who built his entire career on being a bullshitter and court jester. You had Michael Gove, the man behind the “enough of experts” slogan, and an ideologue/bullshitter combo. Then you had Jeremy Corbin, the far-left ideologue who was fundamentally anti-EU, but led a party which was primarily pro-EU.
Yet, the most memorable duo was probably the two men with names that sound like they just came out of a porn flick: Dominic Cummings, and Boris Johnson.
There, you had your ideologue like Dominic Cummings who had his vision of what society should look like, join forces with the likes of Boris Johnson.
Boris Johnson is the classic prototype of a bullshitter. Johnson, usually called by his middle name “Boris”, started off his career as a journalist. Fired from his first job for making up quotes, he gained prominence after he was hired as a Brussels correspondent.
Boris never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Years later, former European Commission spokesman, Willy Helin, characterized Johnson’s reporting as “a load of bullshit”.
The future British Prime Minister was known for writing stories based on exaggerations and half-truths. If the story seemed as if it could be true, he didn’t hesitate in writing it. With more and more of these stories published, what seemed credible started widening too.
In this way, Johnson’s journalistic bullshit poisoned the minds of the British public against the European Union. By stretching the truth and making things up, his newspaper columns set the scene for the Brexit referendum two decades later.
Brexit is just one example of the way that BSing is affecting the political sphere. In the UK, the US, and around the world, this type of dynamic is gaining ground.
Why BS is effective as a tool of persuasion
“It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff.” — Harry G. Frankfurt
For Harry G. Frankfurt, one of the biggest features of “bullshit” is that it involves a kind of bluff. The person selling BS differs from an outright liar in the fact that they are not concerned with the truth at all. As Frankfurt notes, “The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.”
A bullshitter has much more freedom than a liar. For that reason, they can be much more creative. They can fake the context. They can build up elaborate stories. As Frankfurt says, their way of delivering things relies much less on being analytical. Instead, it is all about improvisation, imagination, and playing with emotions.
It is this touching of the emotions that separates a successful bullshit artist from an unsuccessful one. The fact that emotions are a much more powerful way of convincing people than logic has been known since ancient times.
The ancient Greeks divided persuasion into 3 modes:
The first one, “pathos”, is persuasion by emotions. It’s about connecting with the audience on a more primal level, bypassing their brain, and going straight for the heart as they say.
George Campbell, 18th century Scottish philosopher, surmised that what people believe and what persuades is based on a reaction on the emotional levels. It is the emotions that hold sway. If you can play with an audience’s imagination, you can win them over.
A recent study done on the communications styles of past US presidents, has come to the conclusion that Trump ranks the lowest on the analytical thinking part, but highest on confidence.
“An analysis of Trump’s word use in the presidential debates and speeches indicated that he was exceptionally informal but at the same time, spoke with a sense of certainty. Indeed, he is lower in analytic thinking and higher in confidence than almost any previous American president.”
However, the authors of the research note that Trump did not come out of nowhere. In recent decades, there has been a steep decline in analytical thinking and rise in confidence across both sides of the political spectrum in the US, but also abroad. Trump is just a culmination of a trend that started long before.
This type of language seems to connect with the common voter, not just on the emotional level. It also conveys a sense of authority, or “ethos”, the second mode of persuasion. Trump, with his confident style, manages to pass on the message of being an authority, someone who can solve the problems that he is outlining.
And here the word “problems” is key. A bullshitter offering solutions would never be successful if there weren’t real or imagined problems in the first place. For as Frankfurt says, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony.”
That is the reason why populists are so effective. They take real problems, and promise false solutions for them. The best bullshit always has a grain of truth in it.
Frankfurt goes on to explain:
“This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”
Calling someone’s bluff isn’t always effective in countering it
“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” — Daniel Kahneman
America is divided, and so are many countries around the world. Battle lines have been drawn, and it feels like if the two camps live in totally different universes.
The term “culture wars” has been coined in order to describe a conflict between different groups based on ideas, beliefs, and values. The fight here isn’t over material goods, like in the old class war of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Rather, the conflict is over intangible goods. It is over how you define things, and how you interpret the world around you. This type of conflict is the worst kind to resolve.
For it goes deep into how the human brains works. The brain is an imperfect instrument whose main goal is to ensure our survival. Often it works by taking short-cuts. These heuristics end up becoming cognitive biases, which are systemic errors in thinking.
These types of biases explain why people often seem to live in their own reality. The aim of a bullshitter is to access these hidden cognitive biases of his audience.
Frankfurt, in his essay describes how a person can proceed onto calling the bullshitter’s bluff.
“The speaker suspects that this is just empty talk, and demands that the claim be supported with facts. He will not accept a mere report; he insists upon seeing the thing itself. In other words, he is calling the bluff.” — Harry G. Frankfurt
However, countering bullshit by evidence often doesn’t work. A lot of times, the audience that is taken in by the BS is immune to any type of facts negating its beliefs.
In fact, despite being confronted by factual evidence, the person taken in by the bullshit, starts believing it even more. This is called the backfire effect.
An example of how this effect works comes from the 1950’s. Leon Festinger, psychologist and writer, infiltrated a UFO cult, which believed that the world was going to end on a certain date in 1954.
The cult members waited for this date. However when it came to pass, and the world didn’t end, they did not stop believing the UFO BS. Despite all that they actually witnessed, their belief in the words of their guru grew even stronger.
The future of bullshit
“He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” — Harry G. Frankfurt
The concept of bullshit is crucial for understanding the current political discourse. The modern world turns around bullshit. Today’s era has been called “post-truth”, or the time of fake news. Bullshit is thriving.
The reason being is that there is no accountability for bullshit in society. A recent study done by John V. Petrocelli of Wake Forest University showed that bullshit is much more prevalent in certain situations.
“If there is no accountability for bullshit, a person is more likely to let it roll. For instance, having a few drinks with friends who simply nod their heads at everything you say might lead to more bullshitting, whereas having a conversation with a co-worker who questions every detail of your story might make you think twice before riffing.”
Bullshit is becoming the main way that political discourse is being carried out on the different sides of the political spectrum and around the world.
This is linked to something that authoritarians are increasingly using to absolve themselves of blame and cast doubt on the facts.
This muddying the waters tactic consists of throwing out a bunch of BS explanations, hoping that some of them stick. And even if none of them stick, the conversation becomes so confused, that many people start doubting the official version of events.
This was used by Russia in order to cover up its culpability in the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. It was also used by Donald Trump in order to cover up his own tracks.
And this is why bullshitting is so powerful. It doesn’t have to disprove the official version of events. It just needs to succeed in casting a bit of doubt. If that happens, the bullshitter has succeeded.
The so-called “post-truth” era of fake news is in fact an era of bullshit. Trump and his bullshitters on the right are not the only ones engaging it. The left is increasingly resorting to bullshit too.
If history is to serve as a guide, this type of a dynamic usually doesn’t end well. In the last century of its existence, the ancient Roman Republic went down on a similar path.
In his essay on bullshit, Frankfurt shows what type of actions can prevent bullshit from taking over society. It is personal responsibility, and honor.
“In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.”
While bullshit might seem all fun and games, it is not. In fact, it is dangerous, especially if it is the main form of how politics is done on both sides of the political aisle.
Frankfurt leaves his essay with a warning. Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. We have to be careful.
“Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” — Harry G. Frankfurt