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.


The specific kind of deception involved in bullshit, Frankfurt suggests, is of the project the speaker is engaged in. The audience is given the impression that the speaker is a pursuer of the truth, that the correctness of his representations matter to him. In this he resembles the liar. Yet unlike the liar the bullshitter has no particular interest in the truth status of his claims - he simply doesn't care whether what he is saying is true or false, so long as his argument as a whole has the effect on his audience that he wants. As Frankfurt puts it,
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Bullshit abounds in places where people are highly motivated to win over an audience at all costs, such as advertisers, politicians and TV 'experts'. The fake scientist with the sexy Scottish accent reading off a script that this toothbrush will make your smile whiter and more attractive; the politician promising that his prison building programme will stop crime; the activist academic cherry picking statistics that make her thesis seem more credible  - these are all familiar examples of the bullshit genre. It evokes special disgust in old-fashioned enlightenment types - like me - who believe not only that there are objective truths, but that public discourse should be informed by them.

(Although one should not be too fundamentalist in condemning bullshit. Bullshitting is arguably part of the human condition. It can be motivated by all sorts of things besides selling you a bill of goods, such as the all too human desire to be taken seriously. As when an academic on TV is asked questions outside her real expertise but answers them anyway, like micro-economists holding forth about the Euro crisis. Or, by people more like you and me, too embarrassed to admit - or too ignorant to recognise - our ignorance on one of those topics of the day that everyone is expected to have an informed opinion about, like Ukraine, Piketty, the Superbowl, or the science of global warming.)

Politicians certainly do talk an awful lot of the more egregious kind of bullshit, but I think the concept is nevertheless insufficient for diagnosing what is really wrong about contemporary politics, or public discourse in general. If one looks closely at specific examples of what seems to be bullshit, such as Paul Ryan's famously inaccurate 2012 Republican Convention speech, something else seems to be going on. True, on the surface there is the combination of a casual disdain for truth combined with specific factual claims characteristic of bullshit. Yet the conditions for bullshit are not quite met.

Recall that Frankfurt's definition of bullshit identifies it as a particular kind of deception about the enterprise the speaker is engaged in, of being concerned with truth while actually only being concerned with persuasion. Yet in the Ryan case, as in many others, it doesn't seem that the audience was deceived about his enterprise, or that Ryan supposed or intended that they would be. The audience didn't care about the factual accuracy of the claims that Ryan was making any more than he did; they cared that he was telling them what they already believed. This was a collaborative and to some degree conscious act of self-persuasion by all concerned, in which they affirmed together the deeper Truth that Obama is Bad For America. To paraphrase Colbert, Ryan didn't pretend to tell the truth about Obama's presidency to his audience. Instead he felt the Truth at them.


The concept of bullshit is inadequate for understanding and addressing the breakdown of that fuddy duddy enlightenment concept of objectivity in public discourse, the idea that the truth of claims is independent of who you are or where you are looking from.

'Bullshit' doesn't do much more than rearticulate the ancient critique of rhetoric, the study of the art of persuasion: that it produced sophists who had no respect for anything but their careful choice of words and who used their skills to further their own ends rather than the truth or the right. Its achievement lies, somewhat incongruously, in connecting with our emotions rather than our reason, as an evocative label that frames how we see such behaviour. Firstly, as the seduction of a passive and naive audience by an artful manipulator. Secondly, as the introduction of the shabby techniques of the insurance salesman or PR flack into the highest public forum, profaning what should be a sacred. Hence its special appeal to leftist intellectuals, like Thomas Frank, who want to account for the political popularity of the right in a way that delegitimises its success. It allows the left to hold on to their fantasy that the people really - rationally - want what they are selling. It's just that the dastardly right conspire to trick them into voting for their 'values' not their true interests.

Unfortunately, the concept of bullshit implies not only that rightwing politicians are brilliant manipulators - which is not what they look like from here; more like ham actors - but that their voters are chumps. What is being missed, perhaps because of the instinctive intellectual elitism of the left, is the radically egalitarian and demotic quality of this values style of rhetoric in which speakers pander to the Truth that the audience already believes in. Truthiness is a better description of what is going on here.

The concept of bullshit allows the left to dismiss Tea-partiers who believe that Obama is a Muslim and/or was born in Kenya, etc as simple-minded idiots. It would be more accurate, as well as more charitable, to say that they have a different understanding of truth that comes from the heart (or the gut), not the head. They believe in Obama's fundamental unAmericanism and hatred for America. This is an older sense of the word 'belief', as faith or trust in something; it's broader and murkier and more communal than the crisp enlightenment definition of a distinct and warranted claim that something is so. (Such a tribalist epistemology is not, of course, limited to the right, though it seems more developed there - just look at the way the left talks to itself about GM crops or free trade, or how new atheists talk about muslims.)

Thus, specific claims about Obama's birthplace or ObamaCare death panels are not supposed to be evidentiary, as the old-fashioned enlightenment tradition assumes. They are not factual claims that warrant the conclusion that Obama is unAmerican, etc. It is the other way around. Obama being born in Kenya or wanting to murder sick old people are being offered as illustrative examples of the Truth about Obama. They are the kind of thing that Obama would do, given the underlying Truth about him.

Illustrative examples play a role in refining and vivifying the underlying beliefs that people hold. Yet because they do not play an evidentiary role they are peripheral to how people came to hold those beliefs. These 'facts' are produced by people's personal prior commitment to seeing the world one way, rather than determining how they should view the world. Disproving these facts or attempting to expose or limit the bullshitters at rightist think tanks or Fox News wouldn't get you anywhere. No one is being taken for a ride by this collaborative kind of rhetoric, and so no one will appreciate your earnest attempts to set them right about the facts of climate change or whatever.


Truthiness is a problem for political discourse but it is a different problem than bullshit. Bullshit can be understood as a conspiracy against the voters, but truthiness is a kind of conspiracy among a group - a tribe - of voters. Thus, bullshit can be straightforwardly condemned as an abuse of democracy, but one can't say that of truthiness. Truthiness goes against the ideal of public deliberation not because it goes against democratic principles but because it is radically democratic - it extends the scope of legitimate disagreement to the domain of truth itself.

As Stephen Colbert explained, "Reference books are elitist - constantly telling us what is or isn't true or what did or didn't happen". These days we don't only get to make practical judgements - about what is right and wrong; whether we should go to war with Iran or not; whether God exists and what kind of God She is; and so on. As the phenomenon of truthiness illustrates, a good many people are living the post-modern dream, in which we also get to decide what's true or not. And it is surely more democratic for the people to decide for ourselves what feels like it should be the truth than to be told what it is by someone on a podium whose name is on a book.