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.