Beware the bullshit




The truth is not always welcome. Recently the 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, addressed the United Nations. She criticised world leaders for their delayed response to the crisis of climate change.

The hateful responses are worth considering. They weren’t just opinions and robust debate about what she said, but also personal attacks on how she looks, speaks and dresses. Such responses are neither innocent nor justified. These calculated responses should terrify us.

This backlash, particularly on social media, illustrates that the truth is not always easy and certainly isn’t always popular. So what is our role in a world where speaking the truth may be met with violence, intimidation and threats?

In his book On Truth (2006), Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt describes truth as crucial to our survival and flourishing, which requires truth-seeking. We can only prosper, he argues, if we respect the truth. The truth should matter because it is the very fibre of a democratic society.

Yet, to pursue and respect truth, and speak truth to power, we need to develop a fine nose for bullshit. This is what Frankfurt explored in his earlier book, On Bullshit (2005).

What Frankfurt was saying was not new — it was based on an academic essay published in the Raritan quarterly journal in 1986. But On Bullshit resonated with people. Why?

Perhaps it resonated because most people think that bullshit is easily spotted and called out. This has led to a situation where we too often “have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what function it serves”, as Frankfurt reminds us.

We lack a connoisseur’s taste for bullshit, a palate that can detect the various flavours of bullshit, an ear for the slightest variations in the bullshit we hear and read and see every day.

Only when it appears to us in its most unrefined and forceful shape do we see it for what it is.

Recognising bullshit — or crisp and clear analyses of the many kinds of bullshit that we are confronted with each day — therefore matters. We have no other option than to develop the fine art of recognising the bullshit for what it is.

Clearly, this is not only the responsibility of older people. We see young leaders such as Thunberg calling out the bullshit. And so should we all.

But what should we be calling out? What is bullshit? And what is bullshit not?

Bullshitting is not lying, argues Frankfurt, because bullshit is simply not interested in truth. Not even a little bit. And if you don’t care about the truth, then what are lies? This is why bullshit is far more dangerous than lies.

Lies and liars are still, ultimately, concerned with what Frankfurt calls “truth values”. Bullshit and bullshitters are not. Bullshit does not care enough to want to pose as a lie. Bullshit is dangerous because it does not require deliberately lying or being in any way constrained or concerned about truth.

So how do we distinguish bullshit from lies?

According to Frankfurt, the crux of the distinction between lies and bullshit is “deceptive” or “deliberate” misrepresentation. Bullshit differs from lies in “misrepresentational intent” whereas lies attempt to lead us away from or around the truth.

Bullshit hides the fact that it is simply not interested in the truth. It makes its own truth. Bullshit neither conceals truth nor reports truth — not intentionally, anyway — because it is playing a whole different game.

For those of us who are elected as representatives, misrepresentation is the very soul of unethical governance. It is what we should go to the greatest lengths to avoid — fight, even — because ultimately it does not only undermine our integrity as elected representatives, but also damages the very fibre of our democratic society.

Perhaps all of us have contributed to a kind of world that is susceptible to bullshit. And perhaps what this requires is not more sincerity — because none of us are above the bullshit — but a palate for bullshit. Smelling not the roses but the bullshit, tasting not the flavours of red berries and oak in wine but the bullshit, and hearing not only the dissonance but also the dangerous harmony of bullshit.

Most difficult of all is to recognise how seductive, endearing, beautiful, charming, gripping and moving bullshit can be. Recognising bullshit requires looking closer, living deeper, thinking and speaking more carefully.

It sounds so easy to spot bullshit. Perhaps we think it a simple matter to dodge bullshitters. But dealing with bullshit requires admitting that it isn’t possible to altogether avoid the bullshit.

We cannot afford to shy away from the bullshit because it is truth, justice, dignity and the flourishing of all that we are concerned about. If we want to be truth-speakers and truth-tellers, we need to deal with bullshit.

Truth-seekers cannot avoid the bullshit. And if you dare pursue truth, you too may experience how much easier it sometimes is to just let the bullshit be.

But I really hope we don’t just let it be. May we become bullshit connoisseurs so that we may never, or at least not easily, be deceived by the taste, texture, smell and sound of the bullshit we think we need.

May we see the bullshit that we think we want for what it is. May we be pursuers of truth in post-truth, complex times and beyond.

Because the bullshit will always be with us. But, fortunately, so will the truth.

Dr Nadia Marais is a lecturer in systematic theology at Stellenbosch University. This is an abridged version of a speech delivered at a function of the university’s student representative council

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Nadia Marais
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