On Bullshit

ON BULLSHIT….Two decades ago Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay called “On Bullshit.” It became a classic. Why? Probably because the mere repetition of the word bullshit 84 times in a 20-page scholarly essay is funny. Funny in a juvenile kind of way, yes, but still funny. Here, for example, Frankfurt muses on the question of whether or not bullshit is inherently messy and unrefined:

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves…a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. 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. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who ? with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth ? dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.

Quite so. But why has “On Bullshit” recently gotten a new lease on life, including its release as an actual, if extremely teensy, book. It turns out that Frankfurt’s fundamental insight, illustrated with an intriguingly weird anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein, is that the defining characteristic of bullshit is not that the bullshitter is lying, an act that requires the perpetrator to know the truth in the first place, but that the bullshitter doesn’t care one way or the other. The actual facts are irrelevant, and if the bullshitter ends up telling the truth, that’s fine. He just doesn’t care. The relationship of this unblinking indifference to facts with our present day political environment is both obvious and striking. Timothy Noah explicates this a bit further in Slate today:

Why should bullshit be so prevalent now? The obvious answer is the communications revolution. Cable television and the Internet have created an unending demand for information, and there simply isn’t enough truth to go around. So we get bullshit instead. Indeed, there are some troubling signs that the consumer has come to prefer bullshit. In choosing guests to appear on cable news, bookers will almost always choose a glib ignoramus over an expert who can’t talk in clipped sentences. In his underappreciated book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner found a negative correlation between media mentions and scholarly citations for the 100 public intellectuals most mentioned in the media?and these 100 accounted for 67.5 percent of all media mentions!

I’d say this is unassailable. And yet, for all that this advances our current understanding of bullshit, I think there’s something still missing. I shall illustrate this not with Wittgenstein, but with the far more appropriate character of Bill O’Reilly.

Consider O’Reilly’s signature schtick, the “No Spin Zone.” What does he mean by this? I propose that “No Spin Zone” is merely an FCC-friendly translation of “No Bullshit Zone.” O’Reilly is claiming that for at least a few minutes each night, you, the viewer, will not bullshitted. And yet, there’s a meta level here, isn’t there? Because this is itself bullshit. What’s more, there’s a level above that too: namely that both O’Reilly and his audience know that it’s bullshit. And they don’t mind.

This, I think, is a key characteristic of bullshit: not just that the bullshitter knows he’s bullshitting, but that the bullshittee also knows it. He may know it for sure, or he may just suspect it deep in his heart, but part of the essence of bullshit is that both sides implictly recognize that the statement in question is, in fact, bullshit. In this way it acts like a compact between spewer and receiver, a shared secret that brings them closer together. Thus the piquancy of bullshit, as well as its popularity.