Virtually nothing threatens the future of human kind more than the proliferation of bullshit. Admittedly, it sounds like a grand bullshit statement in itself. One could argue, why–half-truths, exaggerations, empty meaningless words–bullshit should be singled out, when there are more obvious and tangible threats. Climate change, possible nuclear confrontations, and a probable global financial collapse are rightly more suitable to bring the doom of our civilisation. I don’t disagree with that. But I argue that, we, humans, can deal with any of these hazards, if we manage to get ourselves out of the sea of bullshit, in which we are drowning. Harry Frankfurt, in his essay On Bullshit, argues that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than are lies. A liar exhibits a twisted form of honesty. Liars know what the truth is, and try to cover up the truth. They are truthful in doing what they do and believe in a principle based on concealing the truth. Bullshitters on the other hand, do not adhere to any principle. They do not care if they are being inconsistent with their previous statements. Bullshitters’ statements might as well be true, or they might be false. The veracity of their statements is of no importance to them. They do what they do to gain an advantage, score a point, or appear knowledgable. We see them everywhere. In corporate meetings, in creative circles, in academia, everywhere. Their main goal is to use empty words to appear important and gain power. They want to “shift paradigms”. They are “entrepreneurs” with “business acumen”. They seek “leverage” to pick a “low-hanging-fruit”. They seek “synergy” in “hackathons”. They hack everything–life, work, everything– and keep hacking until nothing remains unhacked.
I don’t have any problem with ordinary people engaging in occasional bullshitting. Good stories always are fused with at least a bit of bullshit, and who does not like a good story? The problem is when bullshitting, an outright lack of respect towards and interest in the truth, becomes the modus operandi of people. That is when they become fully fledged bullshitters. The more successful bullshitters are, the more dangerous they become. Because, then they are in a position to influence a large number of people. We copy over role models. We start using their vocabulary. We adopt their views. Thus, if the role model is a master bullshitter, however, then inadvertently (or maybe deliberately, but let’s hope not), we help the bullshit to proliferate, via acting and talking like wannabe master-bullshitters.
Take climate change for instance. Powerful figures in charge of big mining companies do not care if it is true or not. They just disagree with it because it is a threat to their personal gains. I do not think that they believe that climate change is a real existential threat, yet choose to lie about it. It would make them both evil and dumb, and they are neither.
So, how we can fight bullshit then, you might ask. I do not have a definite answer to it. But I think the most important thing is to call a bullshit whenever we see one. Bullshitters should be confronted via logic and be relentlessly ridiculed. Preferably both simultaneously.
I acknowledge, it might be hard to point out a bullshitter if at that time he is arguing for our cause. But after all which one is more important? The truth or just being popular and surrounded by people that agree with us for whatever reason. Well, the answer might as well be the latter.
PS. I was inspired by The Origins of Office Speak and the great commencement address by Jon Lovett at Pitzer College, and the daily onslaught of bullshit I witness in academia among other things.