I was scrolling through my Facebook feed about a week ago when I saw Beams contributor C4 Chaos post a link to the (then) upcoming US presidential debates with a tag that said something like, "Let the bullshitting begin". A friend chimed in and asked C4 if he would kindly define his usage of the word bullshit, and C4 came back with a definition via the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose short essay On Bullshit became a surprise bestseller in 2005.
I've always wanted to read that little volume and I'm glad C4 brought it back into my view, because Frankfurt's definition of bullshit is actually really quite interesting and, may I add, valuable for helping wade through the vast reams of bullshit that we get in our media and from our politicians and pundits these days.
Here's Frankfurt from his essay:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His 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. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Here's a video of Frankfurt talking about his book and his views on bullshit. (You can also watch his interview on John Stewart's Daily Show here).
When I was thinking of the topic of bullshit, I figured George Carlin must've had a few things to say on the topic, and boy does he ever. He's got several bits surrounding bullshit, but here's one that I thought fit particularly well with this post. The most directly relevant part is in the first two minutes, but George Carlin had a general knack for cutting through bullshit:
From bullshitters we now turn to assholes. The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has written a recent book about the history of the word asshole, entitled Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years. The word itself is of surprisingly recent vintage (1940's) and Nunberg offers a serious study of its roots and what its place in culture says. Here's an interesting statement from Nunberg on the word's origins:
It's a GI's word most often used for officers, and in particular, officers who are full of themselves. The first military leader to have been called the A-word — both by his men and his superiors, by the way — is George Patton, and that makes perfect sense, particularly if you read the unexpurgated Patton, not the Patton of the movie. ... It's a word that looks up. And the A-word always does. It's a critique from below, from ground level, of somebody who's gotten above himself.
In an article on The Daily Beast, Nunberg is quoted as saying, "Every age creates a particular social offender that it makes a collective preoccupation—the cad in Anthony Trollope’s day, the phony that Holden Caulfield was fixated on in the postwar years—and the asshole is ours.” From the Daily Beast article:
Asshole trails in its wake words like “arrogance, pretension, egotism, rudeness, or an overblown sense of entitlement,” but those words are “like a list of symptoms that manifest the underlying order. At the heart of assholism is a culpable obtuseness—about one’s own importance, about the needs of others and the way one is perceived by them.”
Are there more assholes today than in the past?
"This isn’t an age of assholes—or at least there are no more of them walking the earth than there used to be back when they went by other designations,” Nunberg says. “But it’s fair to call it an age of assholism, one that has created a host of new occasions for acting like assholes and new ways of performing assholism, particularly among strangers and in public life.” There follows about 40 very entertaining pages about American politics, where assholism has been turned into a technique if not an art form.
And seeing as how we finished the section on bullshitters with some comedy, here's a classic bit on assholes by Dennis Leary to close out the post.