Saturday, 31 January 2015

Bullshit vs Truthiness

In 2005 Harry Frankfurt re-published a wonderful philosophical essay, 'On Bullshit', which became a bestseller. Also in 2005 Stephen Colbert introduced a new word, 'Truthiness' -  "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true" - which became Merriam Webster's word of the year.

Both these terms are motivated by concern about the decline of public discourse in America, and their popularity suggests that many people share that concern. Yet they differ in their specific diagnoses of the problem. Bullshit is a form of artful deception of audiences by speakers; truthiness is a collaborative exercise in self-deception in which the audience is a willing participant. Bullshit denotes an abuse of a position of authority, such as by TV pseudo-scientists or politicians; truthiness is a radically democratic view of truth as a matter of personal opinion - whatever one finds it agreeable to believe. Bullshit is what the left thinks rightist politicians do to win votes; truthiness is how they actually succeed.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo: Assholes can't be Heroes

Articles in defence of free speech are pouring out of all the usual places. They are eminently unnecessary. We don't need a theory of free speech or a defence of enlightenment liberalism to condemn sadistic murder, or to go through the rigmarole of weighing up the justice of fanatics' pretended motivations.

Liberal principles are at stake here, but they are those principles that constrain democracies from intemperate reactions, the ones that went missing in America after the World Trade Center attacks. Indeed many of the supposed defenders of our liberal values are enthusiastically carrying out the murderers' plan by promoting an us vs them tribalism. The same newspapers who routinely call for banning speech that offends their editors' sense of popular prejudices now pretend to defend the right to be offensive, but only, of course, to those 'who hate our freedoms', the evil muslim threat to civilisation.