Several years ago I read a short book titled On Bullshit, written by Harry Frankfurt, a philosophy professor at Princeton. I found it enlightening and in some ways life-changing.
Frankfurt said that there is truth, lies, and bullshit. We all understand the difference between truth and lies, and most of us think bullshit is the same as lying. But Frankfurt proposes that lies and bullshit are very different things.
He says a liar knows the truth and chooses to share a falsehood. But the BS-er simply doesn’t care about the truth. They’ll say anything to shape the opinions and actions of others. They use the truth and lies interchangeably. When in doubt they just make things up. Often, the BS-er believes their own bullshit.
It Is Hard to Decipher
With BS, we can’t easily figure out the truth. Something may be true or it may be false. It doesn’t matter. The BS-er uses emotions to shape opinion and actions. Facts don’t matter.Prior to the COVID crisis, I was reading a lot about post-truth politics. BS rules the day. It may have always been this way, but in the post-truth era people no longer seem to care. BS is fine, lies are fine, and even the truth is fine, provided we achieve the desired reaction.
BS It Isn’t Working in 2020
But at the beginning of 2020, things started to change. COVID, racial unrest, and even climate change reared their ugly little heads. Hard as we try, we can’t BS our way out of these issues. In every case, there are facts and there are falsehoods, and basing decisions on falsehoods makes things worse.
Facts are mundane and have an unfortunate side-effect. When we face the facts, often we are forced to change. Change is scary and often really, really inconvenient. So, buying into BS is a way to deny harsh realities and maintain the status quo.
But this is where things can be tragic. When we accept the BS, terrible things can happen. The pain is real. We can’t deny our way out of the outcomes, no matter what BS we choose to believe.
Some Stunning Examples
I have heard some stunning BS over the last few weeks. One of my favourites is wearing a mask will give us cancer. Or the more popular, I can’t breathe when I wear a mask. When the truth is, masks are just uncomfortable, inconvenient, and cost a bit of money.
Ultimately, this is all blended into a wide range of conspiracy theories. Some are more believable than others, but they are all pure bullshit. When the facts don’t work, just make stuff up. Here are some examples:
- The Apollo missions were faked;
- Vaccines cause autism;
- Climate change is a hoax;
- The World Trade Centre was destroyed by the US Government; and
- On and on.
Join the Elite!
When we buy into the conspiracy we become a member of an elite. What we can’t achieve by hard work, we get by joining an exclusive group who posses secret knowledge. This gets around all the effort of actually learning something new and jumps right to insider knowledge. We are better than everyone else. When we accept the BS, we feed our egos.
When things are scary, dangerous, and unpleasant, bullshit can trick us into believing the facts we see with our own eyes are false. Everything is fine. We give ourselves permission to do nothing.
A Normal Reaction to Fear
All of this is a normal reaction to fear. It has been with us for millennia. People will believe really hare-brained BS to hide from scary things and rationalize inaction. This doesn’t mean they’re stupid, they are just really spooked.
It is up to all of us to work harder to identify BS and sort out the truth from the lies. By calling out bullshit when we can, staying factual, and patiently listening to folks to understand their underlying fear, we can work together for a better future.