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Why Bullshit Matters

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The prevalence of bullshit is one of the most salient features of contemporary society. It is not a stretch to say that the election of Trump or someone like him was inevitable. The endless promotion and celebration of people who do not know what they are talking about, who spout nonsense for hours on end, and whose mindless, pointless lives are filmed and beamed into millions of homes everyday was bound to increase the public’s tolerance for bullshit and bullshit artists.

I do not have exclusively, or even primarily, the Kardashian family in mind. Nor can the blame be based entirely on cable news and talk radio.

The surfeit of autobiographies about people who have done nothing of real importance, the parade of so-called experts on daytime television, the trivial, fact-free talk of people whose only qualification for being on television is that they have enjoyed some mild success and look good on air, the belief that there is no such thing as objective truth—these seemingly minor every day betrayals of intellectual integrity have created a public that cares nothing for truth or anything like it.

Enter the reign of bullshit.

But before explaining why this phenomenon matters it is necessary to understand the exact nature of bullshit.

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. The liar must insert a falsehood in a set of beliefs to avoid the consequences of full and unadulterated truth from getting out. In this sense, the liar is concerned with the truth. He is in fact bound by it; for in order to invent an effective lie he must be guided by what he knows to be true.

A bullshitter recognizes no such constraints. He cares nothing about reality. He makes up both context and content. He selects any number of notions, rumors, words, ideas, and facts and puts them in any combination that will suit his purpose.

The great philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his wonderful little book On Bullshit gives a clear and compelling description of the bullshitter’s aim:

“What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs…The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or 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.”

Why does this matter?

When large numbers of people resign themselves to a world filled with bullshit and run by bullshitters, they create the conditions for the falling off, decay, and collapse of their own society. I urge you dear reader to think outside the realm of politics for a moment. If people get used to the idea that it is permissible and virtuous to pass off stories that advance their personal agenda but have nothing to do with truth, friendships, families, business, institutions of every kind will simply cease to function.

Yes, the current bullshit factory that has been set up in the White House is outrageous and dangerous, but it indicates a deeper problem in our culture. The prevalence and proliferation of bullshit is worth noting and fighting against.

About Christopher Reid

Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.

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