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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
josepp BS: On Bullshit (63* d) BS: On Bullshit 28 Jun 11

Picked up this little monograph "On Bullshit" by Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton.

He makes an interesting distiction between bullshit and lying. They are not the same thing although we tend to lump them together and use the terms interchangeably. The reason, says Professor Frankfurt, is in the word itself--bullshit. Lies can be carefully and even painstakingly crafted. But think about shit--excrement. Is it finely crafted, carefully wrought? No, it's a blob of waste dumped from the body. One need not be any type of craftsman to pinch a loaf, as they say. It can have shape and possibly even resemble something that is wrought but only very crudely and never down to particulars as it is randomly produced.

What the liar and bullshitter have in common is that both are trying to get away with something. But the liar deceives by steering you away from the truth or what he perceives to be the truth (it may not be). In other words, he tells you something he knows or believes to be false. If I was screwing your teenaged daughter while you're away and you begin to suspect that I have done this and you confront me and ask me if I had sex with your daughter and I say, "No, I did not" then I am a liar...but not a bullshitter. Ultimately, the liar deceives about what is in his mind.

The bullshitter does no such thing. If you go to visit a sick friend in the hospital and ask her, "How are you feeling?" And she responds with, "I feel like someone dropped a 10-ton weight on me" that would be bullshitting.

It's not that she's lying exactly. True, she really has no idea what it feels like to have a 10-ton weight dropped on her but she wasn't really trying to conceal this from you. All she's saying is that she feels horribly bad. Then why call her a bullshitter? Because, strictly speaking, she was bullshitting you. Not lying. The bullshitter is not trying to deceive you about what is in his mind. He has no concern for either facts or lies. What he's concealing in his motivation. So what is your friend trying to get away with? In this case, nothing more than trying to describe what she really feels like--just that it's bad. But this is a simple example to get the reader to see the difference between bullshitting and lying. The liar presumes to know the truth and deliberately tries to deceive you about that truth. The bullshitter is not hiding a truth from you but is, in fact, indifferent to the truth and so any statement he makes regarding it is meaningless.

When we call someone a bullshit artist, we mean someone who can lay down a line of crap. Again, if we take crap literally--a waste product randomly dumped from the body--then by laying down a line of crap figuratively, we mean they talk in circles, no meaning, they don't lie or tell the truth and consequently tell us nothing at all. It's the same as saying someone is full of hot air. Being full of hot air is related to being full of shit. Either way, a fart or a turd impart no meaning because they are not wrought--they communicate nothing. A lie is at least wrought. Bullshit is not.

What's interesting to me about this is that Sarah Palin is a bullshit artist but she is being followed by a mass of liars. When she says she has studied American history and knows about Paul Revere's ride, she could be lying but she is probably telling the truth in that she believes this to be the case. She wasn't trying to deceive us with her statements about Revere's ride or about her study of history, she simply has no regard for truth. She's a bullshitter. But her followers then went on Wikipedia and attempted to change what was written there to look like she knew what she was talking about.

The difference between Palin and her followers is that Palin wouldn't try to change the entry because she believes it supports her. That's bullshit. But her followers clearly know it doesn't and so they are going to change it so that it does. That's lying. That's a deliberate attempt to lead us away from the truth. She's indifferent to the truth because she doesn't care. Her followers are indifferent to it only when it doesn't support what she's saying. That's an important distinction.

When one of these far right conservatives talks about America being founded on Christian principles and that you can't be a true American unless you are also a Christian--they are bullshitting but not lying. They believe what they are saying but have no regard for the truth--they are full of shit. This person doesn't care if you can refute everything she said, she said it to demonstrate to her constituents where she stands on social issues--not that she actually knows anything about history. If she said that stuff knowing full well it's not true, then she would be a liar. It's interesting that the far right conservative leaders are bullshitters who have no idea what the truth but are being followed by liars who do know the truth but are willing to conceal it in order to support these leaders. They think it is acceptable to work righteousness by means of deceit.

How far can they ride this shipwreck? Will it founder next year or stay afloat long enough that they can make a swim to the White House?

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