Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bullshit About Bullshit

The brothers Upwright probably didn't believe in angels. But they believed in bullshit, and were the type to admire it when it was delivered with panache. There's a kind of big outdoor sort of man who's got no patience at all with prevaricators and fibbers, but will applaud any man who can tell an outrageous whopper with a gleam in his eye.

Terry Pratchett - Going Postal

Frankfurt's enterprise involves talking about language without thinking about how it's used. If that seems a little bizarre, it is. But whole departments of highly-paid academic philosophers trained in the British common-sense tradition maintain this strange tradition because their lives, incomes and emotional well-being depend on it.

This willed ignorance extends to every possible field of knowledge. One of its most comical aspects is its implicit psychological theory, which is the most puerile, unimaginative idea of human psychology. According to Frankfurt, we are all sensible tweedy Anglos who would never lie just for the sake of lying: "'[L]iars' and 'real lies' are both rare and extraordinary. Everyone lies from time to time, but there are very few people to whom it would often (or even ever) occur to lie exclusively from a love of falsity or of deception."

He really thinks people don't lie out of love of the game itself? Jesus, where do these people spend their lives? The world is full of people who lie for the fun of it. Every folk-tale tradition celebrates a great liar; that's the trait for which Odysseus was most admired by the Greeks, for God's sake! But here again, I'm breaking the rules by mentioning actual times and places. Open the door like that and the whole house of cards might blow down.

Now that's the sort of bullshit I like, like the old line "I caught a fish THIS BIG" [spread hands wide]. Creative lying can be fun. For example, there was a game my sister and I liked to play when mum was in earshot. Completely deadpan, we would discuss what we'd been doing, and then conclude with some variant of the line "By the way, did you get any heroin?" It would shock our dear mother. She couldn't help herself - she'd let out an aghast "oaah", even though she knew we had never touched that stuff. Then me and my sister would start laughing. And it worked over and over again through our early twenties.

But there's another meaning of "bullshit", and it's not as nice: the bureaucratic jargon, the corporate speak, the buzzwords, the phrases like "core values", "mission statements", and that nasty little verb "prioritize". (Well, I don't like it.) For more, you can knock yourself out with a non-resume via Steve Gilliard, which contains little phrases like "Strategic Partner Alliances Creator". This sort of bullshit is insidious, and (can I just say) evil. As Gracchus says about the non-resume author on the comments thread:   

I'll tell you why, mets: it's because the wounds are still bloody raw. Maybe you didn't see legitimate companies started by hard-working founders and employees ruined by snake oil salesmen like this, or maybe 5 years is enough for you to forgive and forget. But it's not for me, nor for a lot of us.

Understand: new-age con artists like this caused people to lose money, time, marriages, homes, whole lives. Yeah, there were a lot of bogus companies, shoddy business models and unrealistic expectations. But if you want a model of the hippy-dippy "irrational exhuberance" that undergirded the whole structure, re-read this CV.

I just got thinking about the whole subject, after reading on Crooked Timber:

After featuring on 60 minutes last night, On Bullshit climbed from #21 (when I checked at the start of the segment) in the Amazon charts to #3 (when I checked 5 minutes ago). I have no idea what this means in terms of numbers, but the commissioning editor must be feeling pretty smug. As must [author] Harry Frankfurt, I’d guess.

But I don't know if I will like the book. No, I think I can guess. There's a version of the essay available at the Wayback Machine. I read it. It's not good. It's quite shocking, from a brief skim I did. I can't think of it as really academic (there are no footnotes whatsoever, and external references are minimal), not does it seem to be engaged with reality. There is no mention of campfire whoppers (fun bullshit!), nor the MBA-speak (not-so-fun bullshit). It doesn't even refer to earlier works such as On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, which also bears a chapter "On Bullshit". (And that was about the over excessive spit and polish of the British Army in WWI, and how the petty authoritarianism behind it cost a couple of hundreds of thousands of lives then and there. That would be worth mentioning, at least)  Instead, the author engaged in a long, meandering, monotonous, dreary conversation with himself, and ends up with this grumpy conclusion. A spoiler warning: these are the last three paragraphs:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in 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. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

So who are the real kings of bullshit? If I can understand correctly, they are... whut? God knows. You would think that there would be so many worthy targets for an essay entitled "On Bullshit" - politicians, corporations, dodgy journos, REMFs (for those in the military). And the author instead gives us some vague entity: part democracy activist, part feel-good hippie, part postmodern philosopher, part self-help book reader, part blogger, ready to be placed into the "Moral Relativism" basket. Sounds like anyone we know, personally? Not really. (Maybe this caricature is based on a competitor for tenure at Frankfurt's university.) I know it's not meant to be a polemic, but academic prose - but I state it isn't academic either. No footnotes, remember? It's a missed opportunity.

I should finish with a pun about bullshit, but I won't. Read the essay if you want, but read John Dolan's review anyway. It's more sincere, more correct, and more fun as well.