Framing Bullshit

Text by Pieter Booij.

In 1986, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay about an increasingly common phenomenon both in society and in our daily lives: bullshit. Bullshit seems to be everywhere: in the news; in politics; in advertising; on social media; and even in art and science. Precisely in those areas where you would expect it the least, since it is there that we search for—and express—truth and meaning.

For me, bullshit seems to be in conflict with truth and meaning. But what exactly is bullshit? How do we recognize it? What is, for example, the difference between bullshitting and lying? In his essay, “On Bullshit,” Frankfurt tries to answer these questions by giving a careful conceptual analysis. One of the differences he specifies is that a lie is in essence concerned with the truth, by virtue of it being an intended untrue statement. The liar is concerned with the truth in that he explicitly denies it. Bullshit, on the other hand, seems to be either intended to cover up the truth by diverting our attention away from any concerns regarding the truthfulness or falsehood of what it expresses, or by being an instance of language which is not even capable of being true or false. In the first case, the bullshitter is hiding the truth but not denying it; in the second case, he is indifferent about the truth.

What Frankfurt neglects in his essay, however, is to argue why the existence of bullshit would really matter to us. What is the impact of bullshit, and what is so morally wrong with it? Why is any increase in bullshit more likely to be harmful to our future rather than irrelevant, or even beneficial?

Whatever form bullshit takes—whether it be blurred out words or carefully crafted sentences—as long as it prevents us from asking the question: “What is true…?,” it has served its purpose. And we can easily see why this purpose could be considered harmful. What is the real quality of this product I’m about to consume? What are the real political and societal problems we are facing? What should be really worth investigating scientifically? Does this piece of art really express something meaningful? Am I speaking to a real person, or to somebody who pretends to be someone else? Do I see myself the way I am, or am I bullshitting myself?

But should bullshit only be considered as something negative? In the political field, for instance, it seems that a certain amount of bullshit tends to soften international relations which are under tension. Take for example the relationship between North Korea and the USA; threats that are made by a bullshitter are taken much less serious than those made by a serious person. A bullshitter is held less accountable for what he says or does than a liar—when he is caught in the act. Is a bit of bullshit a good ingredient for maintaining world peace? Can we handle all truths? Can we handle reality? And what if we look at the economy; if bullshit was to vanish from the advertising industry, how would that impact our consumerist based economy? We can dislike bullshit or consumerism, but what concessions are we really willing to make if we could get rid of bullshit as a consequence?

However, there is another problem that a prevalence of bullshit creates. For apart from being an intentional product, bullshit is also a linguistic expression. Since language is our primary means of communication, it is meant to express truths as a condition of communication. What would happen if we simply can no longer discern what might be true or false?

The more we are surrounded by bullshit (just as with fake news), the less we can trust in language as a conveyer of truth. To put it this way; because of bullshit, the function of our language gradually disappears.

These alarming developments require action. Therefore, we present a brand new meetup:

Meet Up: Framing Bullshit: 10th of January Walter Bookshop.