Kester Ratcliff
Jun 19, 2018 · 8 min read

I wrote this long definition and discussion of ‘bullshit’ to enable me to write a much shorter and simpler paragraph defining it in a major article later.

There are basically two kinds of things that constrain a public authority from becoming a tyranny:

  1. facts, and the general public valuing factuality, and
  2. laws, and the general public valuing laws.

I think State authorities speaking and acting with a reasonable standard of objectivity about facts is interdependent with the Rule of Law principle. The Venice Commission agrees with this (‘Rule of Law Checklist’, 2016, CoE), paragraph 15: “The Commission considered that the notion of the Rule of Law requires a system of certain and foreseeable law, where everyone has the right to be treated by all decision-makers with dignity, equality and rationality and in accordance with the laws, and to have the opportunity to challenge decisions before independent and impartial courts through fair procedures.” and paragraph 64, “An exercise of power that leads to substantively unfair, unreasonable, irrational or oppressive decisions violates the Rule of Law.” Legal rationality includes a reasonable standard of objectivity about facts. I think the importance of objectivity in politics and in all exercises and demonstrations of State powers is really equivalent to Rule of Law as a whole, but it is less well culturally and legally protected now. I suggest distinguishing it from Rule of Law explicitly to make it clear that it is that important.

‘Bullshitting’ — is different than just ordinary lying. An ordinary liar values whether or not the listener(s) are persuaded to believe the particular lies they’re saying, whereas for a bullshitting liar that isn’t necessarily important. If I have to choose an alternative ‘polite’ technical term, I’d call it performative political lying. ‘Performative’ means that the performance of the speech or act has social or political effects independent from the particular content of what is said and whether people are persuaded or not of the particular contents. Lying blatantly all the time and strategically communicating to one’s political followers that that is ok now, it’s just normal behaviour for a politician, means overall that the politician or the party or the executive government or even the legislature that they’re representing is less constrained by factuality, in general, for all subsequent issuers thereafter.

In ordinary lying, the particular content is what matters most to the liar, but in performative political lying the particular content is not as important as the social and political effects of them being able to get away with lying so blatantly in public, and what’s most important is that, by bullshit lying and having the power to impose policies and compel people to act collectively as if what they said had any plausible relationship to objective factual truth, they also undermine the constraints on their power in future of speaking and acting in public reasonably in accordance with universally reasonably objectively verifiable facts and of the general public valuing such factuality. Other critics have called this process “truth decay” (Rand Corporation, Truth Decay, 2018), and also argued that in the long-term it is extremely dangerous.

Bullshitting by public figures, or ‘performative political lying’, is organically related to: 1) the usage of conspiracy theories to delegitimise the society’s established knowledge specialists and institutions; and 2) delegitimising the independent media as a civil society institution that has as important a role in maintaining and developing democracy as the judiciary does, including by repeatedly calling it the “fake news” or “ Lügenpresse” without actually critiquing anything specific. Populism does these three strategies, regularly.

Golec de Zavala, A., & Federico, C. M. (2018). Collective narcissism and the growth of conspiracy thinking over the course of the 2016 United States presidential election: A longitudinal analysis. European Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2496

I think most of the public still do not understand what ‘populism’ means, and do not recognise how serious the dangers of it are. It does not just mean ‘doing what is popular’. Essentially it means politically appealing to an imaginary, singular ‘People’s Will’, which the demagogue solely knows, interprets and possesses, thereby erasing the plurality of actual people’s wills, demonising those who oppose what the demagogue claims to be ‘the People’s Will’, so that their followers come to distrust other people outside the populist group so that they will not even listen. In the imaginary construction of a singular popular will, it becomes necessary to displace the sense of inconsistency between personal experiences and the group’s ideology, internal conflicts about those inconsistencies and guilt about demonising opponents, so they must find or create a scapegoat. Populism, not just historically but intrinsically, because of its strategy, regularly allies with nationalism or religious community supremacism (both forms of collective narcissism), and creates a scapegoat to be sacrificed. That is why populism is proto-fascism. It is not merely as mildly problematic as doing whatever is popular, without accepting any constraints, although that is a common secondary feature too.

Last October 2016 I was doing some research around disinformation and propaganda targeting the US election, and noticed what felt to me at first like some really weird strategic communication on Russian grey propaganda sites. ‘Mystic Baba Yaga predicts Apocalypse’ (also interesting: the posts where I saw them seem to have been deleted now) — obviously this is bullshit, so why do they even bother saying it? I still remember it because it seemed so incongruous and I was intrigued why they would even bother doing that. But they were pumping it out quite a lot, not just through one outlet. You could partially explain it with reference to the context of Duginism, which uses eschatological (about the ‘End of Time’) myths a lot, possibly as a dog-whistle tactic to some of their audience. But I don’t think it’s just that.

You can see who is talking about “Baba Yaga” here —

And check the 20 articles for the twitter network above, from: anonnews.co, beforeitsnews.com, disclose.tv, yournewswire.com, and worldtruth.tv, all news site names alluding to conspiracism, and all linked by network data to the Russian regime Active Measures (Активные Мероприятия) program.

The effect on the whole system of bullshitting about really obviously bullshit things, in an environment where knowledge specialists and public information producers and quality checkers are also being delegitimized, is to socially condition the norm that factuality doesn’t matter anymore.

I think the specific function of ‘Mystic Baba Yaga’ kind of bullshit is to condition people to accept low importance bullshit without reacting.

Animal behaviour therapists sometimes use a very low intensity replica of a stimulus which an animal normally reacts anxiously or fearfully in order to desensitise them to the stimulus and counter-condition them to react differently to it. E.g. you can use audio recordings of fireworks at very low volume below the threshold of stimulating a reaction, feed the dog chopped sausage or play with them or otherwise positively reinforce accepting the sound of fireworks as not threatening, then gradually wind the volume up over weeks until they accept the noise of fireworks at realistic volume without reacting fearfully. I think it’s somewhat similar with ‘Mystic Baba Yaga’ kind of bullshit conditioning in humans — it’s below the intensity threshold that evokes a reaction, because in itself it’s too unimportant to bother reacting to, but repeatedly placing it among supposed “news” about politically important events, I guess has the function of conditioning acceptance or no reaction against political strategic communications with no respect for factuality.

An authority which is unconstrained by facts is a very dangerous thing. The law cannot constrain an executive authority when they have normalised them speaking and acting in public blatantly with no respect for factuality. The judiciary may be able to constrain them over a few things, very slowly, but the judicial system, especially when Separation of Powers of State is concerned, is designed for slow meticulous examination of cases at a relatively low rate. The rate at which that system is overwhelmed and cannot function effectively is absolutely too low to keep up with an executive authority which not only makes some bona fide mistakes sometimes but strategically sets out to destroy the public value of factual truth, to remove its constraining power on them.

An executive authority of State that blatantly bullshit lies, displaying no respect for factuality in making policies and proposing laws, which an inadequately independent legislature then confirms without effectively constraining them, more than a couple of times a year, is unlikely to be effectively constrained by the judiciary and laws. Separation of Powers of State is a less efficient constraining system than the general public’s reactions, at least in terms of maximum capacity and rate of processing. When the executive authority bullshit lies multiple times a day, there is no way the judicial system and laws can possibly constrain them to act according to a reasonable standard of objectivity about facts; that constraining process has a very low threshold for being overwhelmed and it can only work very slowly.

“Power manifests itself in the regime’s ability to impose its fictions upon the world.” The complicity of the people within this imposition enforces the regime’s power of domination. In other words, the regime’s power is mainly constructed by the people’s enacted participation in that very construction.

“The politics of acting ‘as if’ carries important political consequences: it enforces obedience, induces complicity, identifies and ferrets out some disobedient citizens…”

Lisa Wedeen, in ‘Ambiguities of Domination’. Amal Hanano continues in his review of the book:

“Indeed, one of the fundamental ways the Syrian people functioned in the police state was by “acting as if”. Acting as if nothing was going on as Hama was pummelled in 1982. Acting as if they loved the leader even though they were terrified of him. The tragedy of Bashar Al Assad’s rule is that his father’s construct of complicity has, over the past 32 months [written November 2013], bled far beyond Syria’s borders to encompass the entire region and international community.”

Amal Hanano, November 2013.

Bullshitting by people in public authority is much more serious than by people acting without State authority. When a toddler speaks imaginatively about things, what they’re saying has a similar level of factuality to a proto-dictator like Donald Trump, but the important difference is the demagogue has the power to compel people to act as if what he was saying is in accordance with factual truths. He may, fortunately, be simply too incompetent to be able to turn into a full dictator, but he is normalising political performative lying so the next wannabe tyrant will probably have an easier job of it then among the population who were conditioned to accept Trump’s behaviour now.

Why I want to point this out is to remind people that when you see bullshit lying in public about political issues by public figures, don’t just perceive it as only as important as the particular issues or particular content of what they say about those issues. In some cases, the particular issues may be important too, but even more important is the general normalisation of performative political lying, bullshitting, and the long-term systemic consequences of that. Conditioning society to accept political speech and action which shows no respect for the value of facts is part of the creeping normalisation of fascism.

Kester Ratcliff

Written by

EvoBio MSc student at RUG in Groningen, refugee solidarity volunteer, activist, political thinker.

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