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Bullshit is the most outstanding cultural feature in our society. Unfortunately, most people associate the term ‘bullshit’ with abuse but as Frankfurt indicates, there is more to the term ‘bullshit’ than its misuse and rhetorical use.
He defines bullshit as an inevitable public life byproduct where individuals are provoked by other people’s demands or their propensities to speak expansively about issues they are ignorant about (Frankfurt 36-39).Frankfurt defines bullshit using the process, not the product.
Even though Frankfurt fails to point this out, I understand the term ‘bullshit’ in terms of bullshit as a verb and bullshit as a noun. This is what makes bullshit distinct from its precursors (humbug, tommyrot, claptrap and bullpucky among others).
Perceiving bullshit as a verb makes it possible to bullshit a person, but impossible to horseshit or twaddle a person. Hence, bullshit is the action that brings about bullshit into being (bullshitted).
In this respect, ‘bullshit’ is same as the term ‘lie’ because when we talk about a lie, we are talking about the action that brings a lie into being (lied). Even so, does this imply that lying is the same as bullshit? We get to know this by Frankfurt’s differentiation of bullshit and lies, which is as follows.
Bullshit and Lying
Frankfurt considers a philosopher’s anecdote where the philosopher makes a call to talk to a sick friend (Pascal). Pascal says that she feels like a dog run-over. The philosopher testily responds to Pascal and says, “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like” (Frankfurt 16).
The testily response shows that the philosopher is suggesting that Pascal is bullshiting. However, a reasonable person would say that Pascal is only expressing herself using hyperbolic or allusive language. Nevertheless, is Pascal actually bullshiting the Philosopher?
To the philosopher, the answer is yes. Pascal speaks unconnected to “a concern with the truth” (Frankfurt 20), making sure that her feeling’s description is made up to appeal to the philosopher. However, Pascal is not lying as she is trying to explain how she feels and is not deceiving the philosopher how a dog may feel if it is run-over.
Therefore, lying is a deceptive act while ‘bullshitting’ is disconnecting from the truth to a degree that a person cares less about the truth as long as the information he disseminates achieves its purpose. A bullshitter is indifferent ‘to how things really are’ (Frankfurt 16).
As McGlone (116-117) simply elaborates, bullshitters focus on persuading and impressing the audience thus having little concern of whether what they say is true or not. They are simply fake things to appeal to their audience. On the other hand, persons who lie have to know the truth to conceal it.
This clearly shows that while a lie may be necessarily false, bullshit may not be as it can be incorrect or correct. Nonetheless, why should we be concerned with bullshit? Frankfurt’s explanation of bullshit as a modern-day problem reveals why.
Bullshit as a Modern-Day Issue
An obvious reason that makes bullshit a modern-day problem is the revolution in the communication industry. Internet and cable television create continuous demand for information and considering that there is insufficient truth to circulate around, people are likely to resort to bullshit and so, people are likely to get inaccurate, misleading or even meaningless information.
The troubling signs of consumers’ preferring bullshit can ascertain this. While selecting cable news guests, bookers now opt for the glib ignoramus over the experts whose talks are in clipped sentences (Cheng, 22-50).
This explains why Posner (186 -189) study reveals an off-putting association between scholarly citations and media mentions in the 100 most mentioned public intellectuals present in the media. It is by no surprise that these public intellectuals who have the ‘off-putting’ association (bullshit) account for about 67.5% of the media mentions. However, does bullshit negatively affect people? This can best be elaborated using real incidences.
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Examples of Bullshit Incidences
The Sokal Affair involves Sokal, a professor who wrote a journal that fell short of scholarly work, flattered editor’s ideological preconceptions and sounded good to see whether people could take bullshit. Confusion surpassed because persons working for the journal including the editor felt that the there was a misrepresentation of the article as a scholarly work by the professor.
Sokal simply noted that a person with sense could have noted that what he wrote was just bullshit (McGlon, 111-117). Other examples include the success stories, ingenious marketing tactics and success stories present in the social media. Some of them may be true but the hype they exude makes them sound unreal (bullshit).
For instance, metrics such as rank, podcasts, tweeple, technorati and threadcount may have little or no relevance but overstating their benefits makes people view them as bullshit (Cheng, 120-123). This shows that bullshit can make us a target of exploitation. To avoid exploitation, we should learn to discern bullshit, “a greater enemy of the truth than lies” (Frankfurt 16).
Cheng, Donghong. Communicating Science in Social Contexts: New Models, New Practices. London: Springer, 2008. Print.
Frankfurt, Harry. Harry Frankfurt on “Bullshit”. Princeton University, 2005. Web.
McGlone, Matthew S. The Interplay of Truth and Deception: New Agendas in Communication. London: Taylor & Francis, 2009. Print.
Posner, Richard A. Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.Print.