“On Bullshit”

On Bullshit” by Harry B.C. Frankfurt is a beautiful, tiny, insightful book that defines bullshit.

“Why Define bullshit”, you might ask?    Why not?  It’s probably 90% of what you can read on the Internet.   It’s probably a large chunk of what you hear from your upper management at work.  It’s probably 90% of political advertisements, and 99% of “spin”.  Probably 90% of commercial advertising would be wondrous bullshit if there weren’t any truth in advertising laws.

So, it’s entirely reasonable for a philosopher to worry about what separates bullshit from truth and lies.   Clearly, bullshit isn’t the same thing as telling the truth, and it’s not quite the same thing as lying, either.   At 67 tiny pages, it’s probably the smallest philosophy book you’ll ever read.   [That may be because he stopped writing before he started producing bullshit.]

So, what is bullshit?  Broadly, it’s when you talk without caring whether what you say is true or not.  More often, it’s when you will happily say anything — true or false — to make people have a good opinion of you or your cause.  It’s when you think the ends justify the means.  It’s when you’re paid to convince people to vote for Obama, and when you find some dirt on Romney, you publish it without caring if it’s true.   Or vice versa.

Professor Frankfurt thinks that bullshit is more corrosive than lies.  He thinks that’s because a liar realizes truth is important (even if he is avoiding it), but a bullshitter doesn’t care.  Personally, I’m more pragmatic.  I think bullshit is a bigger danger because it’s easier, and because it’s harder to prove that someone is bullshitting.  It’s easier to do, because you don’t have to waste any time trying to find out the truth, and it’s harder to prove because bullshit is a matter of a lack of intent (to tell the truth).

Oddly, Harry Frankfurt has become a minor video star.  He was on Colbert’s “The Daily Show” talking about the book[short and funny].   Talking about combating bullshit in political discourse [short and to the point], and talking with Mark Molaro [or here][longer and more thoughtful].  Following that thread, I came across a Crossfire (CNN) interview with Jon Stewart, where Stewart sits down and essentially tells his interviewers that they are purveyors of bullshit.  It’s a unique interview, because he’s being serious and honest, and the Crossfire guys are visibly squirming.