January 3, 2008

This humbug, poppycock, claptrap, hogwash, balderdash, hokum, flapdoodle laden world

I had seen the book On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt couple years ago when it was first published but had not read it. Today, while at the public library, I saw that the author has a new book, On Truth.

I have picked up both books -- both are small (four by six inches) and short (~ 65 and 100 pages, respectively) and hope to read both this month.

This excerpt from a short review of On Bullshit should convey the essence of what the author has to say about the omni-present bullshitting* we have to endure in our lives.
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. ... In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory." (p. 1)

In Frankfurt's analysis, "bullshit" is speech whose truth the speaker considers unimportant; that is, the speaker does not care if he or she is lying or telling the truth, only whether the statement advances a particular objective. In Frankfurt's view this is worse than lying, as liars consider the truth to be important even as they avoid it.
* Like Laura Penny, author of Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit observed: "We live in an era of unprecedented bullshit production."

More...through Frankfurt's words, excerpted from the book itself:
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit.


Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. ...The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
To quote Frankfurt again, this time from the Introduction to his recent book, On Truth: "Bullshitting constitutes a more insidious threat than lying does to the conduct of civilized life." (After his nice expostulation of how bullshitting works, why it is omni-present in today's world, and its insidiousness, he elucidates in this recent book on what makes truth so important.)

Timothy Noah at Slate in a review of On Bullshit explains further:
Frankfurt's conclusion [..] is that bullshit is defined not so much by the end product as by the process by which it is created. Bullshit, Frankfurt notes, is an inevitable byproduct of public life, "where 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."
Noah goes on to discuss this in the context of the bullshit on television (Faux News is the leader but they are all guilty at some level or other!) and also that put forth by the Bush administration on a regular basis.
Cable television and the Internet have created an unending demand for information, and there simply isn't enough truth to go around. So, we get bullshit instead. Indeed, there are some troubling signs that the consumer has come to prefer bullshit. In choosing guests to appear on cable news, bookers will almost always choose a glib ignoramus over an expert who can't talk in clipped sentences.

The Bush administration is clearly more bullshit-heavy than its predecessors. Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, put his finger on the Bush administration's particular style of lying three years ago:

If the truth was too precious to waste on politics for Bush I and a challenge to overcome for Clinton, for our current George Bush it is simply boring and uncool. Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered.
But by Frankfurt's lights, what Bush does isn't lying at all. It's bullshitting. Whatever you choose to call it, Bush's indifference to the truth is indeed more troubling, in many ways, than what Frankfurt calls "lying" would be. Richard Nixon knew he was bombing Cambodia. Does George W. Bush have a clue that his Social Security arithmetic fails to add up? How can he know if he doesn't care?

Indeed!! Assaulted by bullshitters every day in all spheres of life, aren't we?


According to wikipedia, the essay was originally published in the journal Raritan in 1986 before being published as a book in 2005. Actually, I find that wikipedia has a link under References to the entire text of the essay!

I changed the post title after reading this sentence from the aforementioned review by Timoth Noah
How does bullshit differ from such precursors as humbug, poppycock, tommyrot, hooey, twaddle, balderdash, claptrap, palaver, hogwash, buncombe (or "bunk"), hokum, drivel, flapdoodle, bullpucky, and all the other pejoratives favored by H.L. Mencken and his many imitators?

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