On "On Bullshit" - Bullshit Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo by Duncan Hull.

Dr. Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay titled “On Bullshit” in 1986, which was later fashioned into an adorable pocket-sized book in 2005 and popularized by many news and media outlets such as The Daily Show. The work itself revolves around a respect for the truth and the realities we face in our everyday lives, and how people try to pervert that worldview through bullshit.

So what? Bullshit has been alive and well since Socrates’s time, and has debatably comprised about 75 percent of all high school English papers. Bullshit makes the world go round, or at least that is what the bullshitter wants you to think.

First, a few things we need to understand about Frankfurt’s position. A liar and a bullshitter are not necessarily the same thing, both can work within the realm of falsity, but there is an important distinction between the two. In the case of the liar, there is recognition of the value and validity of the truth, a respect if you will, for that which is true.

Photo by April Spreeman.

Since it is understood that the truth is valuable, the liar is aiming to hide reality in favor of a “not truth” that will serve the liar’s interests. This seems like a bizarre way to approach the motives of a liar, but it makes sense. We as people understand that knowledge is power, and that truth will set you free. Thus the liar chooses to control who might have access to that empowering truth because it can be so profound. But the bullshitter — well, that’s a different class of criminal.

The bullshitter works with both fact and fiction in order to progress their position or agenda. Do you see the difference? It involves respective approaches to respect and recognition of what is real and true. The bullshitter lacks any sort of concern for what truly is reality in favor of what they would like for themselves.

Where the liar fears the truth, the bullshitter fears nothing since they can be harbored by both the truth and the lie. So much of what Frankfurt asserts is contingent on people caring about things. He submits that we all care about the truth; finding truth is not only a necessary part of life, but it might even be the goal of life for some. With this in mind, we get the impression that the liar is less morally reprehensible than the bullshitter, and that is exactly what Frankfurt wants us to think.

Now that we have established the difference between the bullshitter and the liar, we can test this theory. When this was written, the internet was in a primordial stage of wiring and dial-up connection, mere rudiments of its current form. Frankfurt could not have predicted that it would become the biggest pile of bullshit known to man. Don’t believe me? Consider HBO’s The Newsroom.

In the pilot episode, there is a wonderful discussion between the show’s two stars Jeff Daniels, who plays unicorn Republican news anchor Will McAvoy, and Emily Mortimer, portraying his executive producer. In a fit of brutal honesty while discussing the state of modern news media, Daniels, as McAvoy, exclaims, “People choose the facts they want now.”

This is not too far from the truth. News and media outlets have gained such a profound presence in our lives, all of them reporting “facts” with their own personal spin. Due to the availability of these (sometimes questionable) truths, measures have had to be taken to verify it.

Websites like FactCheck, PolitiFact, and Truth or Fiction were created to try and sift through the mountain of bullshit that is the World Wide Web. At this point, we pretty much expect politicians and people in authority to sling a little bullshit from time to time, but is this really worse than blatant lying? If we see that there are ways we have sought to counter the flow of bullshit in our daily lives, then isn’t that enough to let them off the hook?

What this all comes down to is how much we enjoy the truth. The expression goes, “ignorance is bliss,” but not in the information age, and not when that ignorance is instilled by someone who wants us to think that they know better. Making informed decisions based on truth is what has progressed humanity to our current state, and bullshit transcends the malicious intentions of the liar because these are people who will use any means necessary to get ahead and prove a point.

Going back to The Daily Show for a moment, Jon Stewart has been waging a war against Fox News, or as he calls it, ‘Bullshit Mountain,’ for the better half of his career. While his own show may not actually inform people as well as Fox does on current events, he is still the person to go to for calling Fox on their lies. Is Fox News THE Bullshit Mountain? While that point is an entirely different debate, Stewart does manage to crystallize Frankfurt’s argument about how bullshit works versus blatant lies.

“The biggest problem with the denizens of ‘Bullshit Mountain’ is they act like their shit don’t stink,” says Stewart. “If they have success, they built it. If they fail, the government ruined it for them. If they get a break, they deserved it. If you get a break, it’s a handout and an entitlement. It’s a baffling, willfully blind, cognitive dissonance best summed up by their head coach, in what is perhaps my favorite sound bite of all time.”

Cut to actor Craig T. Nelson of Coach fame delivering the Tea Party’s bullshit ethos in an interview with self-proclaimed ‘libertarian’ lightning rod, Glenn Beck: “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare. Anyone help me out? No.’”

In addition, there is also this debate between Stewart and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly about the “controversial” visit of the artist, poet, and rapper Common to the White House.

While Fox News may or may not be the ‘Bullshit Mountain’ Stewart claims it is, it certainly provides a ton of examples of the network trying to spin fact and fiction to suit a narrative. The narrative here and for so many others is bullshit, and what it does is create blockades for people to try and progress real and valid points — points that could actually create positive change since they would exist in the light of truth. But instead, these ideas circulated by bullshit serve to only further an agenda of keeping others down and elevating the self.