The Essence of Bullshitting

In On Truth Harry G. Frankfurt summarizes his immediately previous work, On Bullshit, as follows:

…  My claim was that bullshitters, although they represent themselves as being engaged simply in conveying information, are not engaged in that enterprise at all. Instead, and most essentially, they are fakers and phonies who are attempting by what they say to manipulate the opinions and the attitudes of those to whom they speak.  What they care about primarily, therefore, is whether what they say is effective in accomplishing this manipulation.  Correspondingly, they are more or less indifferent to whether what they say is true or whether it is false.

Professor Frankfurt imparts the core of bullshit and bullshitting:  primary or exclusive concern for management of responses [that is, acts] from and by members of  the audience rather than attention to internal states of members of audiences.

Bullshitters must be indifferent to truth and falsity.  [Academic bullshitters usually learn various rhetorics and rationalizations to erode or eliminate distinctions between true and false;  if true and false are but different costumes that the pursuit of interest or advantage may don, then the academic bullshitter dramatizes his or her own sophistication by ignoring truth, non-truth, and all of the gradients between appearance and actuality.]

Bullshitters may be indifferent even to plausibility and implausibility or to credibility or its absence.  If a bullshitter, for example, is running for office and induces voters to vote for her or him, what voters think of her or him may matter little or nothing to the bullshitter and especially to the bullshitter’s handlers.  What actual or potential contributors think or feel, by contrast, may matter greatly to the bullshitting candidate if contributions may depend on such thinking or feeling.  If contributors become concerned, the bullshitter or the bullshitter’s staff must co-opt contributors, perhaps via private audiences in which the bullshitter bullshits contributors or supporters by exposing the bullshitter’s everyday, public blather and providing the “inside story.” [This is “different bullshit/same day” as opposed to “same old shit/different day.”

We err if we presume that every bullshitter expects to be believed or longs to be credible. What the audience thinks or how the audience feels may matter to the bullshit artist — but may not.  For some seduction to “work,” the seduced need merely to act as if the seduced believed the seducer.  When girls in my social group expressed surprise to find a nightie and a toothbrush [and condoms] in their purses, they did so both to fend off a bad reputation [that is, a reputation for behaving like boys] and to protect the ongoing performance of whatever Don Juan happened to be standing near the bar at closing time.

Some bullshitters are working a longer con.  These bullshitters may need or want to protect the bullshit.  By contrast, bullshitters working on the short con may settle for acquiescence without belief.  Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, supplied his supporters with plausible deniability with sufficient staying power to get Justice Thomas confirmed and sworn in.  That many of the denials of the justice’s supporters barely outlasted the hearings or the Senate vote did not matter for the justice’s ascending the Supreme Court.  I do not know whether Justice Thomas is indifferent to his reputation after the swearing in.  I do know that the longer con — that Clarence Thomas was utterly innocent of Anita Hill’s allegations — became less tenable over time.  However, that time has passed, for many Americans have joined the polity in the last 20 years and many other Americans no longer recall who Anita Hill was. Hence, Justice Thomas may be relying on a “curvilinear” con.  Over the short run and over the long run, Justice Thomas’s bullshit may “work” even if it did not “work” over intermediate runs.

To maintain bipartisan balance, let me rehearse the same sorts of considerations for William Jefferson Clinton.  Over multiple short runs, President Clinton bullshitted his way past Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and other affairs or assaults.  Over intermediate runs, President Clinton paid some settlements and suffered some indignities. Over the longer run — we are > 10 years past his presidency — the consequences of President Clinton’s bullshitting should decrease until even the naif must admit that bullshitting profited “Slick Willy” both in the “here and now” of the 1990s and in the long haul of his post-presidency.

Professor Frankfurt’s examination of bullshit, then, teaches us anew the importance of Jacques Ellul’s insight about orthopraxy and orthodoxy.  Many propagandists in centuries past, Ellul wrote, pursued orthodoxy.  They strove to induce correct beliefs and attitudes and hoped that getting minds right would lead to better living and more moral conduct.  20th century propagandists, Ellul argued, cared less about minds, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes.  Modern propagandists pursued “right actions,” orthopraxy.  Induce targets to behave as you would have them behave.  If you are advertising, induce consumers to buy what you are hawking — whatever they may think of it.  If you are electioneering, induce voters to vote for your candidate or to stay home — whatever their reasoning or lack thereof.  If you are professing, induce students to evaluate you favorably — whatever they learn, fail to learn, or learn that is not true.

In sum, bullshitters may succeed to the extent that they induce audiences not to call bullshit explicitly over whatever duration interests the bullshitter.  If long-term credibility interests a bullshitter, the bullshitter must suit the bullshit to enduring attitudes and opinions and must anticipate and fend off — forefend [sic] — revelations and contradictions.  If the bullshitter aims merely to escape a gaffe, even immediate plausibility may not matter much.

Consider, for example, bullshitters sacrificing their own credibility to persuade someone that Sarah Palin was correct when she stated that Paul Revere was warning the British — and perhaps even that Sarah Palin knew she was correct.  Such bullshitters, I suspect, expect the half-life of Sarah’s latest difficulty to be so short that the bullshitters may retreat behind cyber-cover within a week — even sooner if Palin propounds about U. S. history anew or Anthony Weiner’s private parts loom over the Internet.

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