On bullshitting (versus lying)
the former is why society and the planet is crumbling...but here's how to combat it
I came across this simple theory a few weeks ago, posited by Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt: Bullshit is more dangerous than lying, and society today is bog-full of bullshit. Ergo, no wonder we are in moral pain.
I discuss this and the general theme of “truthfulness” in my latest Wild podcast chat with Rebel Wisdom’s David Fuller. The episode covers a very new philosophical and political movement called Sensemaking. I reckon you will all love learning about it.
This episode gives a feel for the kind of discussions I love to have and will be having more of in coming months here and on my podcast. David and other moral philosophers in this anti-bullshit space are intent on not only advocating for more truthfulness, but also talking it themselves. Going first. Showing how it’s done. The kinds of discussions I’m having with these thinkers are a form of moral calisthenics, which my brain and spirit craves. Have a listen and tell me what you think.
But to bullshit and lying…
We live in a world where leaders lie. Exhibits A, B and C: Donald, Boris, Scott. I regard the phenomenon as I do toddlers and teens when they are threatened. Without the emotional maturity to absorb the blows that reality serves us, they lash out with blame and lies in a crude, base, primal way. They throw the toys from the cot.
White patriarchy is being fundamentally threatened and the toffy, rich men who have had it so easy for so long don’t like it. I get it. But they also lack the emotional and moral maturity to process what is going on in a way that is progressive and beneficial to them (for, patriarchy is destructive and painful for everyone). They lack these skills because they haven’t had to develop them. Moral wisdom comes most readily when we are forced to go down into hardship, or when we are cast out, relegated to minority status. These institutionally privileged white, old, rich men aren’t taken to this space, but are aware how precarious their perch on the pedestal is, in part because they don’t possess this crucial wisdom.
And so, at junctures like his in history, they can but defend their turf, their spot on the pedestal, their egoic existence, with ludicrous and cringy lies. They lash out. Blame. Throw the toys from the cot. It’s desperate stuff, for their fundamental worth and survival is at stake (to this extent I get it and can muster compassion). There are many - Freudian, Jungian etc - perspectives that can be taken on this…
But I want to now view things through this lens:
It’s the bullshit we need to understand and combat if we are to productively dismantle the status quo and move on to higher, broader, more mature and more morally robust ground.
Bullshit v lying
Frankfurt says people who are lying are focused on the truth. Liars actively consider the truth when they conceal it. They are aware of it as they lie.
Bullshitters, on the other hand, completely disregard the truth.
So the liar cares about the truth, but attempts to hide it. The bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false. They have a disregard for the value of truth as a fundamental value in our society. They care only whether they get their own way by persuading others to their camp.
And so bullshitting is way more dangerous. It’s insidious. It’s slippery. And much harder to combat. With a lier, at least they have a connection to truth and perhaps can be hauled back to truth via a rational discussion. Bullshitters… well, they just don’t care. Frankfurt adds that while bullshit is occasionally true, it muddies the information ecology so much that it undermines truth itself.
Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” a while back, which touches on a similar phenomenon. Colbert confected the word to describe the Bush administration’s tendency to fudge the facts in its favour. Truthiness is very distinct from truthfulness.
Truthiness. Bullshitting. Obfuscating. Not answering the question or answering it with another question. Gaslighting…
It’s all rage-making. It’s society-destroying. It’s truth-distracting. It’s debate-deviating. It’s fact-discombobulating. We see it used as a technique - subliminally or otherwise - in the climate debate, in the gender wars, race discussion and pretty much whenever something crops up that threatens those standing on those precarious pedestals.
I feel we are fundamentally prevented from progressing with the ideas and hope-filled movements that excite most of us (those of us not squeezed onto those pedestals) because of bullshit. Bullshit (and its attendant slippery techniquing, above) can’t be combatted with rational discussion, by throwing facts back and forth. That is, via the old ways of establishing common ground.
But it can be understood and exposed quietly via the brilliance and desirability of radical truthfulness. Which I think is going to become the new way.
This is our mission. To be as truthful as possible. It’s a pathway not only for dealing with bullshit and bullshitters, but for navigating the increasing complexity of the crises that engulf us (and are caused by decades of defensive, planet-destroying bullshit).
Please stay tuned as I will be digging around the space and reaching out to Big Minds exploring ways to get radically truthful, for I think it’s an art we have lost a little. (And do point me to any names you have come across in this space!)
Meantime, here’s a Wild episode from a few months back with Sara Ness, also a member of the Sensemaking community on how to conduct yourself best in tricky bullshit situations.
Thank you, too, to the membership community for your awesome feedback on my next book project. I will be incorporating many of your ideas and will be inviting you further into the process and collaborating with any of you who are artists, creators etc. along the way. Everyone is welcome to join the membership community by subscribing below.