On Accusations of Bullshit

Thinking about bullshit, I was reminded of the standard interpretation of the Greek sophists. The sophists tend to be seen through the eyes of Socrates which is to say through the words of Plato. But we are using a lens of understanding that is covered in more than two millennia of dust and grime.

I’ve long known that trying to grasp anything in the ancient world can feel like a near impossible task, even if too alluring to refuse the attempt. Understandably, we feel compelled to pull back the curtains of the past, hoping to get a glimpse. It isn’t entirely fruitless endeavor, as we have accumulated much evidence, although more scanty than is preferable.

The problem is less the evidence itself and more about how to make sense of it. After millennia of accrued interpretive traditions, it is hard to see the past with clear eyes and new insight. We inherit biases about texts and history, it being hard to separate the one from the other.

David Corey has a book on the topic, The Sophist’s in Plato’s Dialogues (see Lee Trepanier review). If he is correct, that upends the standard view. It would mean Plato’s motives in writing were more complicated, but it more importantly would mean what he wrote about was more complicated.

He points out that Plato references multiple times that Prodicus, a sophist, was Socrates teacher. His argument is that the sophists are often portrayed in positive light and that a close reading shows that there are many commonalities between Socrates and the sophists. They share methods and purpose in philosophical debate. They share a view of a manifest world that is relative and uncertain. And they share a commitment to human virtue that challenges tradition.

In one dialogue, Socrates makes a fairly direct defense of the sophists, in arguing against an unfair and unfounded criticism of them. What is interesting about the criticism, corrupting society, was later used against Socrates. And this is when it is good to remember that Socrates was also sometimes referred to as a sophist.

If sophists were bullshitters and their bullshit was a threat to Athenian democracy, then what does that say about Socrates? He too was judged as a threat and it is a fact that he did associate with some people who actually did threaten the society by enforcing authoritarian rule. It was a time of instability and so it’s clear why so many Athenian citizens feared anything that further destabilized the vulnerable democracy. But when is guilt by association a justified judgment?

The punishment for Socrates was only banishment and yet he chose death, which basically made it an act of suicide. He willingly drank the poison, instead of simply leaving. I don’t know that there is any evidence that his accusers wanted him dead. Socrates remained a well respected philosopher and public figure, even after his death. Banishment wasn’t even always permanent. So, why did he choose suicide which is permanent?

The main perspective we get on all of this, of course, is from Plato. In the Republic, Plato presents a utopian vision that is non-democratic in nature. That is the earliest inspiration for republican thought, at least in the American tradition of political philosophy. What occurred to me is that this republican ideology was articulated by someone living in a democracy and so, if implemented, this republican society would have followed after a democratic society.

Maybe such republicanism could only ever have been imagined in a democratic society. Because of modern revolutions, we define republicanism in opposition to the monarchy that it replaced. But that isn’t the context of that earliest republican thought. Instead of republicanism primarily being a revolution against monarchy, maybe it first and foremost is a reaction against democracy.

That could be seen in the American colonies where democratic self-governance had been developing for decades prior to the American Revolution and later the co-opting of power by the (pseudo-)Federalists who believed republicanism was opposed to democracy. So, the fight for democracy preceded the enforcement of republicanism. And, yes, it was an enforcement… ask those involved in Shay’s Rebellion who were violently put down.

So, what is Socratic dialogue and sophistry? And what are their relationship to rhetoric and bullshit? If Socrates or Plato had been alive in the revolutionary era of the American colonies, what would they have given voice to and whose side would they have taken? Or if they were here in America today, what role would they play? Do philosophers have much role to play at all in our society? When was the last time a member of the philosophical elite was perceived as enough threat to be deemed treasonous?

One last thought. Harry Frankfurt, in “On Bullshit,” argues that bullshit is more copious in a democracy. Is that really the case. I’ve argued against this. Whether or not there is more bullshit in a democracy, there is no doubt plenty of it. And bullshit ends up undermining democracy. Similar to an eye for an eye, bullshit for bullshit leads to us all being covered in it. There is no moral high ground on top of a pile of crap.

But how do we know what is bullshit? According to Frankfurt, that is to ask about intentions, in terms of sincerity and insincerity. Some of the critics of Socrates and the sophists claimed to know their intentions and that their intentions were not good. That apparently was a serious charge to make against someone back then. As for charges of treason these days, the issue of bullshit is irrelevant. What our society idealizes is the truth and hence what the powers that be fear is those who tell the truth. The most treasonous are the whistleblowers who leak government documents showing inconvenient truths, even if they had the best of intentions such as revealing illegal acts and moral wrongdoing.

For Socrates and the sophists, along with other Greeks, sincerity was of penultimate importance. Bullshit was seen as a threat because it was insincere, a value considered central to their small intimate democracy. We now take insincerity as the norm. Sincerity is too personal of a concern for such an impersonal society as ours. It’s harder to have personal concern for hundreds of millions in a large modern nation-state than to have personal concern for a few thousand in an ancient city-state. We are more tolerant of bullshit maybe for the sake of simplicity, as we can’t go around worrying about the moral intentions of so many strangers who we will never meet.

Bullshit Leads to More Bullshit

In “On Bullshit”, Harry Frankfurt differentiates a bullshitter from a liar. The two aren’t the same. I’ll keep it simple for this post.

A bullshitter can speak the truth just fine, but he just as easily could tell a lie. That is because a bullshitter is indifferent, in being insincere. It goes the other way as well. A liar is indifferent about the issue of sincerity vs insincerity, as someone can be perfectly sincere in their motivations for lying such as seen with authoritarians in their relating to those not part of their in-group.

Here is something about the bullshitter. He can be a perfectly nice and harmless person, such as a friendly grandfather who makes up stories. A master bullshitter could be charming as easily as he could be sociopathic, or he could be both simultaneously. It’s a talent that some people have, whatever purpose they might use it toward.

Applied to politics, I suspect that bullshitters are more common than liars. To get to the top of the political hierarchy requires an indifference to truth. Most presidents and presidential aspirants are bullshitters. Trump is clearly a bullshitter, but so is Clinton (and, no, I’m not arguing that they are equal).

A sincere liar is much more rare. Such a person is likely to be an ideologue and true believer. Cruz seems like a sincere liar, in that being perceived as a ‘good’ Christian seems important to him. He is a man of principle, albeit quite odious principles. The liar has a relationship to the truth, however dysfunctional, whereas the bullshitter can lose all sense of truth and end up believing his own bullshit. The best con man cons himself first. But the sincere liar can be more dangerous still, for he doesn’t need to con himself at all and so can act with clear intention.

Sanders is also a man of principle, but principles I prefer. He is a straight-shooter and even many of his fellow politicians acknowledge this about him, as this direct honesty makes it easy for him to work with individuals in both parties. It’s his concern for truth that can make him seem so quaint, in this age of ruthless corruption and cynical realpolitik. Sanders is truthfully what Trump and Clinton can only insincerely pretend to be.

I don’t think bullshit in general is more common in a democracy, as Frankfurt argues. The world has been ruled by bullshitters since time immemorial. But there is a particular kind of bullshit that is prevalent in a society like ours. It is maybe more dangerous in that the bullshitter impersonates a truth-teller. An example of this is how most of the racially prejudiced in modern America have learned to hide their bigotry behind the language of political correctness. To be fair, some of the most insidious bullshit of the bigoted variety was the dog whistle politics used so effectively by the Clinton New Democrats in their taking over the party and pushing it toward the political right.

American politics makes much more sense once you understand the distinction between a bullshitter and a liar. And if we ever want a functioning democracy, we better become better at maintaining this distinction in all aspects of our society, in particular within government. It is our civic duty as democratic citizens, not to mention our moral responsibility as individuals, to call out bullshit everywhere we see it. This is even more important when bullshit is falsely portrayed as the truth.

Never forget. It was the bullshit pushed by the political establishment, such as the Clintons, that made possible the bullshit of Trump. Bullshit can never be used toward the public good because it will always lead to more bullshit. And once we come to accept bullshit as normal and justified, we lose the capacity to discern what is true. From bullshit, inevitably cynicism and apathy follows. Then all moral high ground is lost.