We need to take a hard look at bullshit. It is now almost commonplace to say we are in a “post-truth” era. But this notion is not only, or even primarily, about the difference between truth and untruth. A proper appreciation of the distinction between lying and spinning, between deliberate misinformation and deliberate obfuscation, is necessary to fully grasp the current political and media landscape.
The liar knows the truth but wishes to misrepresent it; bullshit is different in an important way. The point of bullshit is to influence rather than misrepresent. The job of the marketing consultant, the trial attorney, or the political operative is neither to uphold the truth nor to lie; rather, the job is to portray their client in the best light possible. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously noted that the characteristic stance of the bullshitter is an indifference to the truth. As Frankfurt puts it, the bullshitter’s 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.”
Sometimes bullshit can be harmless. Kind words of encouragement to your children, spouse, or friends can be entirely well-intentioned and also bullshit.
But bullshit often takes the form of systemic, harmful insincerity, with the aim of entrenching a power advantage. Partisan media operatives paint the novel coronavirus pandemic as an impeachment ploy. Talking heads accuse refugees of bringing drugs, violence, and/or disease. Well-funded organizations exist just to undermine the perception of a scientific consensus on climate change.
White supremacist and Trump collaborator Steve Bannon advises his allies to “flood the zone with shit”: to pump so much nonsense propaganda and denial into the media environment as to overwhelm any attempts at fact-checking. The goal is not so much to misinform as to manufacture an “attitude of cynicism about the truth and the institutions charged with unearthing it.”
This sort of program is obviously irresponsible, malicious, and corrosive to public life and democracy itself. Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter’s indifference to factual reality may be even more harmful than the liar’s misrepresentations; at least the liar cares, on some level, what the truth is, if only so it can be hidden. The liar still recognizes the authority of facts.
Lies can be countered with information. Lies can be refuted. Bullshit cannot, because it isn’t about facts in the first place.
As I discuss in my recent book, The Truth About Denial, there are other varieties of bullshit to be considered here. Social scientist Dan Kahan has a category within his taxonomy of states of “knowing disbelief” that he calls “FYATHYRIO (Fuck You And The Horse You Rode In On)”, in which an agent “merely feigns belief in a proposition she knows is not true for the sake of expressing an attitude, perhaps contempt or hostility to members of an opposing cultural group, the recognition of which actually depends on others recognizing that the agent doesn’t really believe it (‘Obama was born in Kenya!’).”
A subcategory of bullshit statements, in other words, is the category of statements that are primarily intended not to fool others, but simply to generate an attitude (e.g., solidarity, disapproval, or contempt) for a strategic purpose — such as whipping up support for some political initiative (a.k.a. ‘rallying the base’) by making your audience fear some ethnic or religious subgroup. I call this “expressive bullshit”.
Political partisans (and, increasingly, hostile foreign operatives) employ conspiracy theories and social media memes to foment social divisions and discontent. These messages are full of false claims, but, again, whether the content of these messages is true or false is entirely irrelevant to the purpose. That’s why trying to counter this sort of manipulation with the truth doesn’t work — the purpose of flooding the zone with shit is to create emotions, not factual beliefs. You can argue with factual claims, but you can’t argue with emotion.
When I write or speak about these issues I’m often asked about Donald Trump. He utters falsehoods constantly and seemingly compulsively. Climate change is a “hoax”, Russian intervention in our electoral system is a “hoax”, and it turns out the threat of the novel coronavirus is also a “hoax”. But his lies are typically so patently refutable that it seems their purpose is not really to deceive. Rather, he appears to just say whatever it feels good or useful for him to say at the moment (which in his case just happens, most of the time, to be false). As philosopher Robert Paul Wolff observes, Trump seems to be almost exclusively driven by the infantile urges Freud called “primary processes”: urges for immediate gratification and self-protection. The frequent purpose of Trump’s utterances — just as in expressive bullshit — appears to be that of expressing an attitude and generating emotions; but in his case they are emotions of a particular primitive and self-serving sort. The phenomenon seems to be one of compulsive self-aggrandizement and self-soothing. I call this “infantile bullshit”.
Politicians strategically and chronically employ bullshit for the sake of inflaming public fears, sowing confusion and doubt, and preserving endorsements, donations, and/or party support. Todd Akin was the 2012 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri. He was notorious for having said to a TV interviewer, regarding pregnancies from rape, “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” The former chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Congressman Joe Barton, has expressed concern that energy production from wind turbines may be harmful because it “slows the winds down.” U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe presented a snowball on the Senate floor, claiming that the presence of snow during wintertime in Washington, D.C. refutes the existence of global warming. When the zone is flooded like this, progress on matters of urgent public concern is all but impossible — and that’s the point of the strategy.
We are in a culture war, wherein malevolent political operatives are attempting to destroy the concept of objective truth itself the way invading medieval armies would undermine and collapse castle walls by destroying their foundations. These epistemic terrorists would rather see the world burn than allow nonwhite refugee immigrants into the country, or countenance new environmental protections that might upset the status quo social and economic order.
The thing about a war is that it is difficult to unilaterally declare peace. Perhaps our only option is to fight the war and win it. Fortunately, what is left of our democracy still allows, theoretically, for some change in our governing institutions via elections.