What's Tony Thinking

On Bullshit


Apologies up front to those offended by the language of my title. In my defense, let me say that “bullshit” is my actual topic here.

Roger Cohen called attention in a recent column to the work of the philosopher, Harry Frankfurt. Frankfurt published a book length essay in 2005 titled, On Bullshit.

Events have made Frankfurt’s work even more relevant than it was when first published.

Frankfurt, a Princeton philosopher, distinguishes lying from bullshit. A liar knows what the truth is and chooses to lie about it. The bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth one way or another, but is engaged in manipulation to attain whatever their purpose happens to be. Here’s Frankfurt:

“What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” (italics added)

He “misrepresents what he is up to.” And there can be a certain art to it. Hence the term “bullshit artist.”

Cohen sees Donald Trump as, “the Michelangelo of bullshit artists.” He is really good at it.

Many have noted and complained of Trump’s lies. Well, those are many. But simply describing him as a liar doesn’t quite get it. “Bullshitter,” is a more accurate description of the modus operandi of Donald Trump.

It also helps us to get a handle on what is so confounding and frustrating about Trump. When dealing with a lie or liar, the truth can be produced or established. But with Trump that really doesn’t matter at all.

More from Frankfurt:

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (italics added)

Frankfurt believes the bullshitter is more dangerous than the liar. Why? Precisely because he is indifferent even to the notion of truth or reality at all. Everything is smoke and mirrors.

If Donald Trump is the Michelangelo of this genre, it should be said that he is not a solo practitioner. Self-examination is incumbent upon us all.

One thing that tends to encourage B.S., according to Frankfurt, is people’s willingness to expound upon things about which they actually know little or nothing. That’s a warning to many of us — bloggers, preachers, reporters, pundits and politicians among them. A warning for casual conversation. A warning to those inclined to tiresome “man-splaining.”

Another thing contributing to BS, mentioned by Frankfurt in a YouTube video, is the pervasiveness of a marketing mentality in our society today. Everything is for sale. Even people. “Pay attention to your image.” “What’s your brand?” “You have to market yourself.” Again, Trump has been the master here.

It is a useful distinction. Trump is less a liar than a bs’er, someone who uses whatever is at hand in order to achieve his purpose. This is why it seems that somehow the whole game has been changed. Why it feels as if we’ve gone down the rabbit hole.

Nixon was a liar. But Trump is a BS’er.

A final point, the gospel is a “B.S. detector.” How so?

Well, look at who Jesus is consistently at odds with. Those who are pretty sure of their own righteousness and virtue. Those who see themselves as secure and beyond question. Not the down-and-out, but the up and coming. Jesus sees as God, who looks upon the heart, sees.

Jesus consistently sides with the unlikely and unexpected. He finds for the sinners and against the righteous. He turns the world’s judgements upside down . . . over and over again. He “detects” the bs  in the self-aggrandizing and smug, but sees the beauty in the broken who rely on God alone.

Or as Pascal so memorably put it, “The world does not divide between saints and sinners, but between sinners who believe themselves to be saints and saints who know themselves to be sinners.”






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