Man on Sidewalk in Front of Movie Poster, 1936. Walker Evans, photographer.
In 2005, Harry Frankfurt wrote a monograph entitled On Bullshit and this work received a flurry of attention. At its core, Frankfurt argues that while lying is a misrepresentation of the truth, bullshit is a misrepresentation of the self, and an indifference to truth, which in his mind is worse than lying.
For all the attention it receives, outright lying is relatively rare in democratic politics. And when it does happen, politicians may pay heavy price. Bullshit, however, is all too common, produced not just by politicians, but pundits, and dare I say it, academics who study politics. And unlike lying, bullshitting is well rewarded.
The history of political thought presents us with possible parallels. In Gorgias, Plato warns us of the danger of rhetoric, and what he describes comes close, bullshit. On the other hand, he also argued that in certain respects lies could be noble. In a different context, George Orwell made important observations about the way abuse of language harms political discourse. The kind of abuses Orwell details fit nicely under the designation “bullshit”.
Plato and Orwell’s insights are especially relevant in democracy. Bullshit is more dangerous to democracy than lying. Unlike a lie, bullshit is destructive of even concern for the truth. Thus, in politics, it creates conditions where it is easier to present a lie as truth, and indifference to truth in public discourse renders public discourse impotent or worse. Even more destructively, it infects thinking. The corruption of language is bad enough, but even worse is the corruption of thinking. This is Plato’s insight into the problem with rhetoric, where the weaker argument can defeat the stronger.
Because of this, the exposure of bullshit is an important political duty. A most effective means for this is political humor, especially satire. Bullshit seems to be resistant to conventional modes of argumentation and dispute, but at its best, satire exposes the pretensions of the powerful.
The full paper is available as a PDF at the link. BS probably covers The Big Lie as well – Bush and the conservative echo chamber about WMD in Iraq and ties to al Qaeda. That Fannie May or Barney Frank caused the Wall Street collapse of 2007 would be another Big Lie and still part of the ongoing BS on some web sites. BS carries the same penalty as big lies. Once started the believer must continue in order to save face. To acknowledge a major falsehood requires both the moral courage to admit wrong and frequently the epiphany that one has invested a tremendous amount of ego, time and energy into something not morally defensible.
What conservatives want and how they think about compromise and the government shutdown.