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The Bullshit Paradox

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With apologies to my parents, I'm going to spell out "bullshit" in this essay because bullshit is the serious object of my inquiry, and isn't being used as a curse. Quite the opposite.

My claims are that bullshit gets a bum rap, and, paradoxically, that it's simultaneously becoming both more ubiquitous and more endangered today. That may sound, well, like bullshit, but read on.

In 2005 Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt published a wee and charming book, based on a lecture, called On Bullshit. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies to readers hungry for a philosophical scaffolding by which to understand this mysterious, belittled force that nevertheless infuses our daily lives.

Frankfurt gives bullshit the earnest inquiry and quirky respect that it deserves. He makes bullshit Bullshit. He refines the definition, and teases out the distinction between bullshit and lying.

Bullshit, Frankfurt describes, is a unique kind of speech act. When someone bullshits, or engages in a bull session, the speaker is understood to be trying out "various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say."

Bullshit permits high candor and low accountability. It's an improvisational, half-baked talk, and not held to the standards of proof, wholehearted conviction, or instantiation that we'd otherwise expect. With bullshit, "the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended."

Which isn't to say that the bullshitter is lying. It's not that they deceive or fail to get things exactly right, but that they're not even trying to, nor are they expected to try.

Bullshit makes possible "an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion," Frankfurt explains. The highbrow literary equivalent of bullshit might be the "essay," with its French etymology in "essai," or, to try.

In this respect I'd contend that bullshit is the rhetorical plasma of democratic, civil society: I have a perhaps-decent but nebulous idea, or I'm forming an opinion on something, and I circulate it through the democratic process of debate and conversation, and grow either to refine or reject the idea. Bullshit fills an important function in civic society. It's the rhetorical equivalent of the jazz riff. You don't know where the idea's going, you don't know what you'll be saying next, but you try it out.

Testing and affirming ideas collectively--before we commit to them rigidly, or before we officially change our minds--is the procedural style of democracy.

By one metric, bullshit is thriving today. Pundits and mere mortals are forced to speak casually on things they know nothing about (Casey Anthony; debt ceilings; Syria), which is a key element of bullshit, and we have occasions--if not compulsions--galore in which to do so. We need to fill the 24-second news cycle on cable TV, feed Twitter's gaping maw, satisfy "refresh" click-itis by producing new content, savagely pen the Comments sections of even the most benign reportage online, and declare our status on Facebook.

These are all natural petri dishes for the proliferation of bullshit.

We're also expected to have strong opinions to prove our civic engagement, even though the world's complexities and knowledge over-specialization mean that we know less than ever before about more than ever before.

At the same time, bullshit isn't really permitted to be itself anymore. While much of our public discourse has the vague, improvisational content of bullshit, bullshit's habitat of ephemeral, fleeting, off-the-record space is shrinking.

Bullshit, by definition, can't go on your Permanent Record. Yet that is precisely what happens today with new social media and more intrusive versions of the old media. A politician can't evolve their thinking without becoming a flip-flopper. They can't try out something thoughtfully provisional, or exploratory, to see how it flies. Once it's said, it's there forever, and subjected to truth-telling standards appropriate to all on-the-record utterances.

This paradox of indelible bullshit is mostly a creature of cyberland. But bullshit's natural habitat is also under stress with the panoptical of YouTube and I-phones and their techno-kin (reality TV is bullshit's "artistic" cognate). Even in real time, unrecorded social chat, where the bullshit should by rights be flying free, you can get caught on the record. We're all armed with recording devices of some kind, patrolling the home where the buffalo(shit) used to roam.

And even when we're not literally getting taped on an I-phone or video, we've by now internalized the wary, jittery, self-censoring instincts that the panoptical of our age promotes, and that cripple our bullshit capacities.

So it is that bullshit is both thriving and dying. We're getting all the downsides of bullshit and none of the upsides.

Eventually, we might endeavor to save our bullshit, as we should. We might revive the privileges, liberties and latitudes of bullshit, even in a context where the bullshit is discordantly indelible.

Perhaps we'll improvise pretend off the record bullshit spaces online. Let's ennoble them as "Idea Incubators." Or, we'll create bullshit reservations, as we'd do for an endangered species. Maybe we can have an LOL-like acronym and preambling qualifer such as "BSP" ("bullshit privilege about to be taken") to shield tender bullshit from the glare of truth-telling standards applied to permanent record statements.

However we do it, our democracy relies on a healthy bullshit habitat, and right now we've got the worst of all worlds: Bullshit, bullshit everywhere but...