Awhile ago, I came across a wonderful little book by Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton. The title is simply, On Bullshit. Apparently, the book has become somewhat of a classic since it was published in 2005. It was a New York Times best seller list and reviews are scattered across the web. Here is an interview with the good professor.
The entire interview can be viewed here.
Although he gets a bit long-winded, Frankfurt does a superb job of defining bullshit, which he calls something “short of lying.” Bullshit, he says, is an attempt to create an impression in the mind of the recipient that something may be so, whether or not it is so. Whereas lying is a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth, bullshit has no regard for the truth. For example, Bernie Madoff lied, but politicians bullshit when they promise to lower taxes and improve public services. Madoff committed deliberate deceit (fraud); the politician merely creates an impression in the minds of potential voters. The fact that his promise is impossible to fulfill never enters into the equation.
There are two forms of bullshit, Frankfurt says. There is the sloppy, careless sort of bullshit one sees in today’s media, where headlines often have nothing to do with the facts. With the growth of the blogosphere and social networking, this form of bullshit is spreading like manure on a farmer’s field in the springtime.
Then there is the “finely wrought” sort of bullshit created by highly paid experts who have dedicated their careers to bending the truth without blatantly lying. The epitome is the public relations expert, the true bullshit artist. As Frankfurt writes:
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.
I think George Carlin said it better.
Although Frankfurt does a good job at defining bullshit, he doesn’t really explain why people resort to bullshit so readily. I agree with him that bullshit is more prevalent than ever before, but why has it become so acceptable? Why do we tolerate it so readily? Have we all, as Chris Hedges says, become victim to an Empire of Illusion? Let me know what you think.
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