Friday, January 1, 2016

Bullshit: A Greater Threat to Truth than Lies

Bullshit is a vulgar term. Worse, it is a vulgar and destructive reality. We will attempt to understand it more clearly by reflecting today on the book, On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt (Princeton University Press, 2005).
Lies. To better understand the meaning of bullshit, we will contrast it with lies and bombast. A lie is a statement made with the intention to deceive. A speaker lies to misrepresent what they believe to be true either of their own subjective reality, or of our shared objective reality, or both.

A person may lie, for example, about global warming. They may do so by intentionally misrepresenting their personal thoughts about it. They may do this by saying that they’ve not given much thought to the subject when, in fact, they’ve thought about little else. They may lie by saying it’s of little concern if they know it to be of serious consequence. They may, of course, deceive us both ways: they may say they’ve given global warming little thought because it is an unimportant subject when, in fact, they have given it much thought because they know this subject to be of great importance.

As faithful witnesses to Jesus, we Christians commit ourselves to speaking the truth; that is, to intentionally speaking accurately about both our own subjectively reality and our shared objective reality. Even with a strong commitment, this is actually difficult to do, takes much practice and, surprisingly, is often punished. Given the choice, people usually prefer being happy to knowing the truth. Part of our commitment to the truth, then, involves a willingness to be challenged by it and because of it.
Bombast is pretentious speech. Harry offers this example: Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind” (16).
We may use Harry’s example to discern the difference between lies and bombast. That example would be a lie only if the speaker believed his statement was false but wanted his hearers to believe it was true. That, however, was not his intention. Rather, his intention was to create a false impression of himself as someone deeply patriotic and pious. So bombast differs from lies but both are examples of falsehood.
Even as Christians, we indulge in bombast. It’s our Olympian personality doing it. We do this, for example, when we speak about God or country in an effort to create a more positive image of ourselves in the minds of others than the truth about ourselves merits.
We are being bombastic when we speak of God or country in glowing terms so that our hearers will attribute to us that same glow. One dangerous example of this: we speak of the Bible as being inerrant and of its authority as absolute. In practice, however, this turns out to mean that an inerrant interpretation of the Bible is attributed to some person and therefore absolute obedience to that person is demanded of all others. Not good.
Bullshit is mindless speaking; speaking, that is, with no regard for the truth of what we are saying. When we speak thoughtlessly or carelessly, our words lack substance. As Ecclesiastes said, they are vanity. There’s nothing there: no nourishment of mind, spirit, or relationship.
Lies are intentionally false words. Bullshit isn’t about lies because bullshitters don’t care about the truth. Bombast is idealistic speech about a subject for the purpose of being regarded just as idealistically by others. Bullshit isn’t about any false idealism even though it is about creating a false impression.
We may gain a clearer understanding of the false impression we seek through bullshit by briefly reflecting on why there is so much more of it today. Bullshit today is in response to the conventional but false assumption that all responsible citizens of a democracy must have an informed opinion about every matter of political importance. That is just not possible for a host of objective and subjective reasons.
Another widespread if misguided assumption driving our more desperate practice of bullshit: all responsible persons must have an informed opinion about every current event. That’s just not possible either.
Because of these two common but destructive assumptions, we all experience the pressure to avoid moral censure for being an irresponsible idiot. To be regarded as a responsible informed adult, we must appear to have an informed opinion on any subject deemed important by the mass media. Since this is impossible, we must either responsibly confess our ignorance and lose all credibility as a witness to truth. Or we must bullshit.
Usually we bullshit. In general, all the words we share with others about the various topics of the mass media, including domestic politics, foreign affairs, wars in distant countries, economic policies, technology, sports, and newly-released movies, are all examples of bullshit. When we speak, we don’t know what we’re talking about. We talk, often passionately, because we want to be judged by others as a responsible informed adult.
One miserable defense of bullshit: the current valorization of sincerity. This is the defense we make when we speak passionately about a subject we know nothing about. Our words may not correspond to objective reality but they do correspond to our feelings about that reality—at least at the one particular moment we’re talking!
Bullshit is a greater threat to truth than lies. At least when we lie, we know the truth we wish to misrepresent. With bullshit, we neither know nor care about the truth. Furthermore, bullshit is much more frequent, and much less censured, that lies. Our Olympian personality’s well-developed and conventionally justified habit of bullshitting progressively weakens our Christian personality’s practice of seeking and speaking the truth.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.