It’s not very often that students of epistemological philosophy find something to snicker about. And when they do it’s usually over something that is difficult to explain and ceases to be funny when you try. But, thanks to my friend and former professor Kyle Roberts, I found just such a thing two years ago while reading Linda Zagzebski’s excellent little book, On Epistemology. In the first chapter, Zagzebski spends a few pages discussing the concept of “bullshit,”1 which is more extensively presented in Harry Frankfurt’s excellent article, On Bullshit.
Now, most of you won’t buy Zagzebski’s book (because money) or read Frankfurt’s article (because time). And that’s okay. But I feel like the concept of bullshit has such immediate application for all of us that I wanted to take some time to talk about it. So, here it goes.
Oddly enough, it’s sort of difficult to explain what exactly bullshit is. The funny thing is that most people intuitively recognize it when we encounter it. Almost as though we could smell it. Despite what the popular card game would have you believe, bullshit is not lying. Lying is when you intentionally say something that you know (or believe) to be false in an attempt to deceive someone, generally to achieve some sort of end goal. So, for instance, if I believe that it is raining outside, I might tell you that it’s not in the hopes that you will believe me, go outside, get wet, and thereby provide me with a good laugh.
Bullshit, however, is something else. You see, truth-telling acknowledges the validity of the way reality is and then seeks to speak to that. Lying also acknowledges the validity of what is real, but then seeks to deceive the listener. Bullshit is different, because a bullshitter doesn’t care whether what they say is true or not. It might be true, it might be false. It really doesn’t matter, because bullshit is not at all concerned about truth. Rather, it is concerned with how the listener perceives the bullshitter.
And in this sense, bullshit might be considered worse than lying. Liars at least have a conscientious awareness of truth. Bullshitters just don’t care. As Frankfurt says,
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth— this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.
Is it wrong to shit the bull?
So, a very important question to ask is whether or not it is wrong to “shit the bull.”2 To which I would reply, yes and no.
On the one hand, I think all of us do this from time to time in a rather harmless way. For instance, I will often find myself in a “bull session,” where some friends of mine and I are discussing a topic that we may very well have strong opinions on. But, just for the sake of a laugh, we will express views about that topic that we really don’t hold. An example of this between my wife and I might sounds something like the following:
“Do you know what your son did today? He colored all over the wall with permanent markers.”
(sigh) “Well, I guess we better beat him black and blue to teach him a lesson.”
“Agreed. I’ll go outside and get a piece of wood with nails and broken glass embedded in it.”
“Make sure the neighbors don’t see you.”
“Ah, good thinking. I’ll just use my invisibility cloak.”
Now, of course there is little, if any, serious information or opinion being shared in this conversation. As some of you are well aware, my wife and I are decidedly against the use of physical punishment as a form of discipline, and so the idea that we would beat our son (especially with such a violent tool) is purely absurd. Moreover, we don’t even own an invisibility cloak! (… yet.)
So, yeah. Everybody knows that poop jokes can be funny sometimes, bullshitting as well.
On the other hand, I think that there are times when bullshit can be downright wrong. In certain conversations, especially over certain topics, I think we have a moral obligation to the truth. Moreover, whether we are correct in our assertions or not, there are times when we owe it to the topic at hand and those around us to be sincere in what we say. And sincere is something that bullshit, by definition, isn’t.
But, just in case all this discussion about such a naughty word is starting to annoy my more conservative readers, let’s take a look at a biblical example.
The book of Job tells the story of a righteous man who finds himself on the raw end of a feud between God and Satan. The majority of the tale is made up of poetic speeches made by the various characters. At the end of the story, God shows up and gives some closing statements, essentially highlighting the moral of the story. Part of this includes God scolding Job’s friends for the way they acted and, more specifically, the things they said throughout the story.
Now, this is where most folks get the point of Job wrong (in my humble opinion). You see, the way this book is often taught in churches goes something like this. Everything goes to crap for Job, he loses all his livestock and children, and then the text reads:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God. (Job 1:21-22)
Then preachers and Sunday school teachers skip over pretty much the entire book and land near the end which says:
It came about after the LORD had spoken these words to Job, that the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. (Job 42:7)
And the lesson goes: See there, boys and girls! Job spoke what was right about God, even when he accepted all of the terrible stuff as coming from God. So when shit happens in your life, know that God is doing it for a good reason (probably) and you just need to praise God for it.
The problem here is not only that this sounds pretty much like the worst life lesson you could ever give a person, but it actually ignores most of the story to make this point. It skips over a ton of other stuff that Job said, such as…
“[God] mocks the despair of the innocent.” (Job 9:23-24)
“From the city men groan,
And the souls of the wounded cry out;
Yet God does not pay attention to folly.” (Job 24:12)
“I was at ease, but [God] shattered me,
And He has grasped me by the neck and shaken me to pieces;
He has also set me up as His target.
His arrows surround me.
Without mercy He splits my kidneys open;
He pours out my gall on the ground.” (Job 16:12-13)
“I cry out to You [God] for help, but You do not answer me;
I stand up, and You turn Your attention against me.
You have become cruel to me;
With the might of Your hand You persecute me.
You lift me up to the wind and cause me to ride;
And You dissolve me in a storm.” (Job 30:20-22)
So, was Job right about all of this? Does God really mock the innocent who suffer? Does God really not care for those crying out? Does God shatter people without mercy, setting them up as targets to be shot at? Is God cruel to people, persecuting them without compassion? Not only does this make God sound like a heinous monster, but even if it were true it hardly seems like the sort of thing that God (or the author of Job) ought to be proud of.
Thankfully, if we read the whole story, we find out that it is not trying to make any such claims. In fact, quite the opposite. Toward the end, Job admits…
“I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3, 6)
When God said that Job spoke what was right, He didn’t mean that Job spoke accurately about God. Rather, the word translated “what is right” is the Hebrew kûn, which can also be translated as “straight-forward.” In this sense, God commends Job not for having very good theology (since it would seem from Job’s final statements that he very much did not), but rather for speaking honestly and in a straight-forward manner about his thoughts and feelings, even if it revealed some very shoddy theology.
So, what does this mean for Job’s friends who also had very terrible theology (prosperity gospel, anyone)? It means that they weren’t honest, they weren’t straight-forward in what they said. In fact, although we often miss this in church sermons, the real crime of Job’s friends was not that they were heretics, but that they were chronic bullshitters!
They weren’t at all concerned with truth. If they happened to say something truthful in their longwinded speeches, great! If not, who cares? Because the point of what they were saying was not to be honest about what they believed, or to convey any sort of genuine message to Job amidst his suffering. They were not conscientious thinkers or communicators. Rather, they were primarily, perhaps even solely, concerned with how they were presenting themselves. As Frankfurt says in his essay,
The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
The funny thing is that even though most people have a very strong disdain for disingenuity, most of us have a tendency to allow bullshit to run rampant in our culture. In fact, on social media we might reasonably identify bullshitters as trolls. Now, in case you didn’t know, an internet troll is someone who posts stuff online (usually in forums and comments sections) solely for the purpose of provoking an emotional response in others. It’s not about engaging others in meaningful dialogue, since the troll just wants to get a rise out of people for their own amusement. It’s not about presenting their own thoughts even at the risk of upsetting others, since the troll actually wants to upset others. Moreover, what the troll says might or might not be true. It might or might not be what the troll actually believes.
And this is where trolling betrays itself as bullshitting, since the troll has no conscientious regard for truth, whether sharing it or denying it. They just want to present themselves in a certain way for not-truth-related reasons. And as bad as that sounds, we sort of let it go. In fact, sometimes we show a degree of affection or admiration for trolls. The infamous Ken M. is just such an example of a troll that the internet sort of praises for his bullshitting abilities.
And even if you have the good sense to avoid YouTube comment sections and the like, you’re sure to run into bullshit in everyday life. People do it all the time in mundane conversation. We say things not knowing whether or not they are true. We express opinions that we don’t actually hold. Like Job’s friends, when someone is hurting we throw bullshit at them not because it is true or it helps, but because we want to be perceived in a certain way, whether compassionate or pious. In fact, whenever church folk tell a suffering person, “It’s all part of God’s plan,” they are shitting the bull. They don’t know that for a fact, nor could they. When a Christian leader attributes a tragedy to God’s divine judgement, I get a huge whiff of bullshit. They don’t know whether or not there really is a divine force behind such things. They just want to sound pious and righteous. And along those lines, they succeed… at least insofar as Job’s friends did.
In fact, our economy and government are significantly fueled by bullshit. To hear Frankfurt put it,
The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.
And maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Maybe it’s all in good fun. Maybe we need a healthy dose of bullshit in our lives. But I sort of wonder at the damage we might be doing to ourselves, as people and as a society, when we allow others to spread bullshit unchecked. And we do. There’s no use denying it. As Frankfurt comments, “people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies.”
But, should we? I mean, at least the liar knows their lying. The bullshitter just doesn’t give a shit.
1: Linda Zagzebski, On Epistemology. (Wadsworth Publishing, 2008), pp 19-22.
2: Which is very likely where the much tamer phrase, "shoot the breeze," comes from.