The book I pick for this week’s edition of PolicyMic’s Relevant Reads is really an essay (it’s a hella short book); due to its popularity and impact, it was eventually published as a book, and since then has enjoyed bestselling success and three or four reprint runs. The book is On Bullshit (Princeton, 2005) by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt — and I highly recommend it.
As the title suggests, it’s an essay that analyzes the notably under-analyzed method with which we like to deceive and manipulate each other: our verbal excrement. In a straightforward, incisive, scholarly, and logically disciplined manner, Frankfurt defines “bullshit,” outlines the reasons a “bullshitter” does what he does, and finally examines the intricate art of “bullshitting.” And for anyone who hasn’t ever thought about any of this, if Frankfurt’s revelations are any indication, there’s really more to being full of it than you think.
I was motivated to pick this title because of two lingering news stories from last week. One of them has revolved around the most recent spats between the respective campaigns of the President of the United States and the former President of the Olympics, or whatever the hell he was. The point of contention has to do with, on one hand, the real date Romney retired (or better yet, desperately and “retroactively” divorced himself) from Bain Capital, and on the other hand, the multi-multi-multimillionaire’s rigid refusal to follow in the footsteps of other presidential nominees (and his own father) by divulging his tax return history prior to 2010.
The other story revolves around the one and only Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and her crusade to scare all the God-fearin,’ gun-clingin,’ REAL Amuricans into believing that the Muslim Brotherhood has actually achieved, in her always entertaining words, “deep penetration in the halls of our United States government.” In a typical display of the conservative brand of class (and logic), America’s wannabe, modern-day Joe McCarthy and her four-man band of witch-hunting Republican congressmen single out Huma Abedin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s long-time aide and a well-respected regular on Capitol Hill.
According to Bachmann and her gang of five, Abedin is some sort of sleeper cell out to…well, I dunno, replace our Constitution with Shari’a law I guess, which unequivocally must be the case given that she’s the daughter of a (dead) guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy (*sighs*) who ran an organization that may have had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Anyway, the one thing all the parties involved in both of these stories have in common — and miraculously, I’m actually not just singling out the conservatives (or the flip-flopped, suddenly conservatives) among them, meaning I’m talking about my beloved president as well — can be summed up really well with one magic word, and that is “bullshit.” They’re all just plain full of it at one point or another; and though it may or may not be obvious to you, there is always an agenda behind their bullshit. Determining what those agendas are is even less obvious.
One of the soundest ideas Frankfurt pushes in On Bullshit (maybe a little redundantly and humorlessly) is that “it is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth” (emphasis mine), for lying by default involves a conscious and fundamental understanding of what is in fact true before saying something you know can not be true. It’s even simpler with truth-tellers, for “when an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true.”
“Producing bullshit,” however, as Frankfurt insists, “requires no such conviction.”
“For the bullshitter […] he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. 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” (emphasis mine).
I, and I’m sure many have the tendency to associate “bullshit” with lies, but now I know that’s not necessarily the case. I find it fascinating that “bullshit” can not only be independent of lies and truths, but can indeed consist entirely of truths. I could be trying to get my kids to eat broccoli, believing in my heart of hearts that it’s good for their bodies and good for their long-term eating habits. But my eldest son who hates broccoli can misrepresent me in the eyes of his younger sister, manipulating her into believing that I’m actually trying to poison, or torture her; he whispers defiantly and devilishly into her ear, telling her “Broccoli is disgusting,” or “Broccoli is nasty” (both of which are true), and finishes off with perfect leading questions, like, “What is dad trying to do to us?”, thereby planting the idea that I’m a deranged man.
And before I know it, I’m dealing with a mutiny when I get to the dinner table.
For all I know, Bachmann’s telling the truth; Abedin may not be a spy for the Muslim Brotherhood, but as much of a stretch her incredibly petty connections are to it, they may technically exist. The Obama camp may be right in asserting that Romney could have committed a felony by lying to the SEC. Romney may be truthful in assuring voters he was technically not a part of Bain post-1999 and that it was all just a matter of paperwork or what have you. But their goals have nothing to do with truth; the ends are all about planting the ideas the right ideas to rally support for their own respective causes.
And the devious yet intricate and at times elegant means through which they hope to achieve those ends many times comprise, not lies and truths, but straight-up BS.