The age of bullshit
We’ve all done it. You say what you have to say to get things done, with little regard for the truth. But does it matter?
This article is a preview from the Spring 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Last week, as I got into my armoured vehicle and drove through another war-torn capital, past ancient ruins and some all too recent ones, I wondered: ”‘How did I become such a bullshitter?” I’d spent the small hours with the Prime Minister of the country agreeing his communications strategy and policy platform for the next six months. But I know little about his country; I don’t even speak the language. I was undeniably bullshitting. And I didn’t feel that bad about it.
In his seminal essay “On Bullshit”, the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt attempts to provide a theory of bullshit. Frankfurt distinguishes between the bullshitter and the liar. The liar cares about the truth. He believes the world is one way and deliberately tries to deceive us that this it is another way. The bullshitter, however, has no such regard for the truth. What he says may or may not be true: what he really cares about is achieving some other objective, which has nothing to do with the content of what he’s saying. “By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” Frankfurt writes.
Frankfurt leaves an unanswered question dangling; if bullshitters are more dangerous than liars, why are we more tolerant of them? Following the lamentable public debate on Brexit and the more surreal vicissitudes of the Trump campaign, this is a vital question.
Should I mend my ways? The development sector, which I work in, is notoriously full of bullshitters. But why? The majority working in the sector are overeducated and underpaid, and on some level believe they are helping to improve the world. The simple truth is they believe in what they’re doing and they bullshit to get things done.
Frankfurt paints bullshitting as an individual vice but in reality it is often a demand of the institutions and discourses which we operate within. We’ve all done it; you just say stuff whether it is to get more money, to tick a box, to get past an approvals process. The last thing on your mind is whether that statement is true. The danger is when this becomes entrenched, the rules of the game. In the end, you stop caring about the truth at all.
* * *
I recently met someone involved in building cattle markets in rural Somalia, who told me how effective his programme is at countering violent extremism. It is possible that a better cattle market may convince some residents that al-Shabaab is not best placed to offer them desperately needed security. I have my doubts. But however tenuous the link, to secure funds today, projects that would have once been described as “economic development”, or “inclusive markets” must be wrapped in the language of “defeating Islamic extremism”.
The cattle market builder was subjecting me to this bullshit even though I wasn’t a potential donor and there was no conceivable benefit to him. I suspect he had ceased to care about the truth of his words. Talking about terrorism felt good and showed the importance of his project – and himself. He had become a full blown bullshitter.
If bullshitting is a demand of the system, there is a moral dilemma when the bullshitter no longer believes in the integrity of the system they are operating within.
Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, is often referred to as the “biggest slum in the world”, purportedly containing 1-3 million people. I’ve lived in Nairobi, and it is mind-numbingly obvious that it contains nowhere near that many people. Best estimates using satellite imagery place the figure closer to 200,000. Following yet another press tour of Kibera interviewing HIV patients and orphans, journalist Martin Robbins called bullshit, returning with a local fixer “to see if we could find something that was interesting, or real, or ideally both”. As he later wrote in the Guardian, the trip “confirmed what I already knew…the idea that Kibera holds a million people is completely and utterly absurd”.
How did this bullshit come to be taken as truth? Robbins imagines an intern working on an NGO report and making a bad estimate of 1m people. The NGO uses the upper end of the estimate to secure more funding; the embassy they apply to for funding accepts the figure because it helps them reach their target; the donor accepts it because it helps them justify their ring-fenced budget. In this scenario, it is in everyone’s interest - from the self-elected community leaders who receive the funds, to the ministers of the donor country - to inflate Kibera’s population. The end result is a charade. When various elements of a system converge around a narrow set of interests, or in other words, an establishment forms, then bullshit proliferates.
The overblown figure probably meant more money for some of the world’s poorest people. Robbins called bullshit because it made him doubt the entire system. Playing along was an affront to his self-respect.
If we always justify the means by the ends, we allow bullshit to proliferate. When we reach a point when what we say or do is dislocated from the most obvious facts, we cannot have faith in the broader enterprise. How could anyone sincerely believe the goal of the development sector is helping Kibera when it is not even pretending to be concerned with basic facts about the people who live there?
* * *
Given the current political climate, Frankfurt’s question - why are we so forgiving of bullshit? - is more urgent than ever. Political discourse is being pulled away from reality in a collective manifestation of what Frankfurt describes – the “normal habit of attending to the ways things are is becoming attenuated and lost”. Reams have been written on “ post-truth” politics (Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year). But I’m sceptical of the need for a new neologism when Frankfurt’s concept of bullshit offers a clear analytical framework.
In his essay “The Power of the Powerless”, Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident and first President of independent Czechoslovakia, offered a simple but powerful response to the totalitarian system under which he once lived; that it was incumbent on each individual to call bullshit. Under a totalitarian system, Havel argued, the truth becomes irrelevant. The ideological edifice forces everyone from the top to the bottom of the system to go through intellectual, moral and practical contortions that no one really believes in: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, ARE the system.”
The only response to this, Havel argued, is to “live within the Truth”; to find small moments, however inconsequential, however private, when you stop playing along and regain a sense of personal moral integrity. Havel thought that Communism would last hundreds of years. In fact, the system he was fighting lasted little more than a decade longer. Partly due to the efforts of Havel and his fellow dissidents, more people stopped playing along. In an earth-shattering, epoch-wrenching way, they called bullshit.
Both the development bullshit I engage with in my professional life and Communist regime bullshit are in part a result of a narrow set of interests all defined in reference to each other. In the extreme example of the USSR and its satellite states, every fact formed part of an internally consistent and self-justifying ideological edifice, which cannot be proved or disproved except by facts internal to it. That is why Havel saw that putting just one foot outside could reveal the nature of the entire superstructure. In the case of the development sector, we have allowed all the key players in the chain to align their interests, whether that be political capital, bigger salaries, status in their community or bureaucratic advancement. The resulting discourse ultimately obscures whether or not the work is doing what it should: helping people.
We all need to take responsibility for this, especially self-professed bullshitters like myself - even if we think our own bullshit is justified. On an individual level, bullshitting undermines our ability to pay attention to the way the world is: we become more forgiving of bullshit in all its forms. On a societal level, it fundamentally corrodes the role of truth in discourse. The public knows that the people and institutions they experience through the media are often just saying and doing something because that’s what the rules of the game require. They rightly develop a generalised scepticism about the truth and motivations behind what experts or officials say. It is this generalised scepticism, the sense that no one is ever really telling the truth, tthat allows populists to harness people’s sense of fear, injustice and entitlement, and forge them into narratives which claim to speak “truth to power”. The bullshit of the establishment begets the bullshit of political populists.
Havel teaches us that one of the most effective political weapons against the bullshit of the powerful is the individual integrity that comes from accepting the demands of the truth. So if we are worried about the rise of bullshit politics, then perhaps we all, myself included, need to be a little less forgiving of our own bullshit.