Bullshitting is prevalent in this info-crazy world of ours. But what exactly is it?
The Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, tells us that bullshitting is not the same as lying. For someone to lie, he must know the truth. Bullshitting, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the truth at all. It is “an indifference to how things really are.” The purpose of the bullshitter is to “get away with what was said.” Pictured this way, the bullshitter becomes a greater enemy of the truth than a liar.
There are two kinds of people that make the bullshit phenomenon possible. There are those who produce it, and those who consume it. The role of the producer is to sell crap to others, while that of the consumer is to accept the crap with delight. Those who produce it will continue to produce their BS for as long as there is demand for it.
As Frankfurt notes, “people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.” We know of a lot of people who like to talk and talk and talk. And it is sometimes funny to think that most of the time what they’re saying is merely air. They talk the bullshit talk. But what is not funny about it is that we tolerate it.
Bullshit is possible because there is a need for it. There is a craving for a ton of senseless, and often destructive, information. Thus, we have gossip-oriented TV and radio shows. We have politicians who promise the same old stuff, and we continually vote for them. We have bosses who like to be seen as a know-it-all. And we have employees who are none the wiser. And, yes folks, we have tons more.
Some bullshits are benign. For example, when a call center agent tells a client, “I will do the best that I can to help you sir,” or an employee greets her boss, “Good morning sir, I hope you’ll have a great day ahead.” These may all be bullshit passed on over and over since it helps to lubricate people’s relationships with one another.
But we should emphasize, again and again, that most bullshits that we accept are harmful and detrimental. And we have to do something about it.
How then can we deal with bullshit? I could only provide you some tips.
To escape getting pelted with it:
1. Do not accept anything without checking its veracity and value.
2. Question the assumptions of what is being offered.
3. Inquire for evidence or justification.
To avoid bullshitting others:
1. Be truthful. (Well, most of the time. In some cases you’d feel nothing better to offer than a white lie, e.g. love-life scenario and ordinary social interactions.)
2. Avoid flattering others. (This may cause you to make statements that have no regard for truth.)
3. If you really do not know anything about the subject matter being discussed, especially if it is of a delicate nature, say that “I do not know, but I want to know.”
We can avoid bullshit by just thinking things through, and by being honest about what we know. There is no harm in being truthful and being attentive to the truth.
Jeremiah Joven Joaquin is an associate professor of Philosophy at De La Salle University.
Email:email@example.com . This paper is a shorter version of his forthcoming article, “Truth, Lies and Bullshit,” in the journal, Think: Philosophy for Everyone. A draft copy of this longer work is available at https://sites.google.com/site/jeremiahjovenjoaquin/publications.