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.

On Truth and Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

This is how Harry Frankfurt begins his essay, “On Bullshit“. He continues:

“Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”

So, what is this bullshit? He goes through many definitions of related words. A main point is that it’s “short of lying” and this leads him to insincerity. The bullshitter isn’t a liar for the bullshitter isn’t concerned about either truth or its contrary. No intention to lie is required.

“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on the opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts . . . the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.”

Bullshitting is more of a creative act that dances around such concerns of verity:

“For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”

Bullshit is, first and foremost, insincere. In Frankfurt’s essay, that is some combination of an observation, premise, and conclusion. It is the core issue. But as with bullshit, what is this insincerity? How are we to judge it, from what perspective and according to what standard?

His answer seems to be that bullshit is to sincerity as a lie to the truth. This implies that the bullshitter knows they are insincere in the way the liar knows they are being untruthful. And as the bullshitter doesn’t care about truth, the liar doesn’t care about sincerity. This assumes that the intention of a speaker can be known, both to the presumed bullshitter and to the one perceiving (or accusing) them as a bullshitter. We know bullshit when we hear it, as we know porn when we see it.

After much analysis, the ultimate conclusion is that, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” Bullshit is insincere and sincerity is bullshit. How clever! But there is a genuine point being made. Frankfurt’s ideal is that of truth, not sincerity. Truth and sincerity aren’t polar opposite ideals. They are separate worldviews and attitudes, so the argument goes.

Coming to the end of the essay, I immediately realized what this conflict was. It is an old conflict. It goes back at least to Socrates, although part of larger transcultural changes happening in the post-bicameral Axial Age. Socrates is simply the standard originating point for Western thought, the frame we prefer since Greece represents the earliest known example of a democracy (as a highly organized political system within an advanced civilization).

Socrates, as known through the writings of Plato, is often portrayed as the victim of democracy’s dark populism. The reality, though, is that Plato was severely anti-democratic and associated with those behind the authoritarian forces that sought to destroy Athenian democracy. His fellow Athenians didn’t take kindly to this treasonous threat, whether or not it was just and fair to blame Socrates (we shall never know since we lack the details of the accusation and evidence, as no official court proceedings are extant).

What we know, from Plato, is that Socrates had issues with the Sophists. So, who were these Sophists? It’s a far more interesting question than it first appears. It turns out that the word has a complicated history. It originally referred to poets, the original teachers of wisdom in archaic Greek society. And it should be recalled that the poets were specifically excluded from Plato’s utopian society because, in Plato’s mind, of the danger they posed to rationalistic idealism.

What did the poets and Sophists have in common? They both used language to persuade, through language that was concrete rather than abstract, emotional rather than detached. Plato was interested in big ‘T’ absolute Truth, whereas those employing poetry and rhetoric were interested in small ‘t’ relative truths that were on a human scale. Ancient Greek poets and Sophists weren’t necessarily untruthful but simply indifferent to Platonic ideals of Truth.

This does relate to Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. Small ‘t’ truths are bullshit or at least easily seen in this light. The main example he uses demonstrates this. A friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein’ was sick and she told him that, “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” Wittgenstein saw this as careless use of language, not even meaningful enough to be wrong. It was a human truth, instead of a philosophical Truth.

Her statement expressed a physical and emotional experience. One could even argue that Wittgenstein was wrong about a human not being able to know what a hurt dog feels like, as mammals have similar biology and neurology. Besides, as far as we know, this friend had a pet dog run over by a car and was speaking from having a closer relationship to this dog than she had to Wittgenstein. Reading this account, Wittgenstein comes off as someone with severe Asperger’s and indeed plenty of people have speculated elsewhere about this possible diagnosis. Whatever is the case, his response was obtuse and callous.

It is hard to know what the relevance of such an anecdote might have, in reference to clarifying the meaning of bullshit. What it does make clear is that there are different kinds of truths.

This is what separated Socrates and Plato on one side and the poets and Sophists on the other. The Sophists had inherited a tradition of teaching from the poets and it was a tradition that became ever more important in the burgeoning democracy. But it was an era when the power of divine voice still clung to the human word. Persuasion was a power not to be underestimated, as the common person back then hadn’t yet developed the thick-boundaried intellectual defensiveness against rhetoric that we moderns take for granted. Plato sought a Truth that was beyond both petty humans and petty gods, a longing to get beyond all the ‘bullshit’.

Yet it might be noted that some even referred to Socrates and Plato as Sophists. They too used rhetoric to persuade. And of course, the Platonic is the foundation of modern religion (e.g., Neoplatonic Alexandrian Jews who helped shape early Christian theology and Biblical exegesis), the great opponent of the Enlightenment tradition of rationality.

This is why some, instead, prefer to emphasize the divergent strategies of Plato and Aristotle, the latter making its own accusations of bullshit against the former. From the Aristotelian view, Platonism is a belief system proclaiming truth all the while willfully detached from reality. The Platonic concern with Truth, from this perspective, can seem rather meaningless, maybe so meaningless as to not even being false. The Sophists who opposed Socrates and Plato at least were interested in practical knowledge that applied to the real world of human society, dedicated as they were to teaching the skills necessary for a functioning democracy.

As a side note, the closest equivalent to the Sophists today is the liberal arts professor who hopes to instill a broad knowledge in each new generation of students. It’s quite telling that those on the political right are the most likely to make accusations of bullshit against the liberal arts tradition. A traditional university education was founded on philology, the study of languages. And the teaching of rhetoric was standard in education into the early 1900s. Modern Western Civilization was built on the values of the Sophists, the ideal of a well rounded education and the central importance of language, including the ability to speak well and persuasively, the ability to logically defend an argument and rhetorically to make a case. The Sophists saw that to have a democratic public what was needed was an educated public.

Socrates and Plato came from more of what we’d call an aristocratic tradition. They were an enlightened elite, born into wealth, luxury, and privilege. This put them in opposition to the emerging democratic market of ideas. The Sophists were seen as mercenary philosophers who would teach or do anything for money. Socrates didn’t accept money from his students, but then again he was independently wealthy (in that, he didn’t have to work because slaves did the work for him). He wanted pure philosophy, unadulterated by the coarse human realities such as making a living and democratic politics.

It’s not that Socrates and Plato were necessarily wrong. Sophists were a diverse bunch, some using their talents for the public good and others not so much. They were simply the well educated members of the perceived meritocracy who used their expertise in exchange for payment. It seems like a rather normal thing to do in a capitalist society such as ours, but back then a market system was a newfangled notion that seemed radically destabilizing to the social order. Socrates and Plato were basically the reactionaries of their day, nostalgically longing for what they imagined was being lost. Yet they were helping creating an entirely new society, wresting it from the control and authority of tradition. Plato offered a radical utopian vision precisely because he was a reactionary, in terms of how the reactionary is explained by Corey Robin.

Socrates and Plato were challenging the world they were born into. Like all reactionaries, they had no genuine interest in a conservative-minded defense of the status quo. It would take centuries for their influence to grow so large as to become a tradition of its own. Even then, they laid the groundwork for future radicalism during the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Enlightenment Age. Platonic idealism is the seed of modern idealism. What was reactionary in classical Greece fed into a progressive impulse about two millennia later, the anti-democratic leading to the eventual return of democratization. The fight against ‘bullshit’ became the engine of change that overthrew the European ancien régime of Catholicicism, feudalism, aristocracy, and monarchy. Utopian visions such as that of Plato’s Republic became increasingly common.

Thinking along these lines, it brought to mind a recent post of mind, Poised on a Knife Edge. I was once again considering the significance of the ‘great debate’ between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. It was Paine who was more of the inheritor of Greek idealism, but unlike some of the early Greek idealists he was very much putting idealism in service of democracy, not some utopian vision above and beyond the messiness of public politics. It occurred to me that, to Paine and his allies, Burke’s attack on the French Revolution was ‘bullshit’. The wardrobe of the moral imagination was deemed rhetorical obfuscation, a refusal of the plain speech and the plain honest truth that was favored by Paine (and by Socrates).

Let me explain why this matters. As I began reading Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, I was naturally pulled into the view presented. Pretty much everyone hates bullshit. But I considered a different possible explanation for this. Maybe bullshit isn’t more common than before. Maybe it’s even less common in some sense. It’s just that, as a society that idealizes truth, the category of bullshit represents something no longer respected or understood. We’ve lost touch with something within our own human nature. Our hyper-sensitivity in seeing bullshit everywhere, almost a paranoia, is an indication of this.

As much as I love Paine and his vision, I have to give credit where it is due by acknowledging that Burke managed to catch hold of a different kind of truth, a very human truth. He warned us about treading cautiously on the sacred ground of the moral imagination. On this point, I think he was right. We are too careless.

Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind. Here is how Frankfurt explains it:

“Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:

“In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.

“The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.

“It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

“The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all.”

This is logos vs mythos. In religious terms, it is the One True God who creates ex nihilo vs the demiurgic god of this world. And in Platonic terms, it is the idealistic forms vs concrete substance, where the latter is a pale imitation of the former. As such, truth is unique whereas bullshit is endless. The philosopher and the poet represent opposing forces. To the Philosopher, everything is either philosophically relevant or bullshit. But to the poet (and his kin), this misses the point and overlooks the essence of our humanity. Each side makes sense, according to the perspective of each side. And so each side is correct about what is wrong with the other side.

If all bullshit was eliminated and all further bullshit made impossible, what would be left of our humanity? Maybe our very definition of truth is dependent on bullshit, both as a contrast and an impetus. Without bullshit, we might no longer be able to imagine new truths. But such imagination, if not serving greater understanding, is of uncertain value and potentially dangerous to society. For good or ill, the philosopher, sometimes obtuse and detached, and the artist, sometimes full of bullshit, are the twin representatives of civilization as we know it.

* * *

“I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called.”
by Ann Althouse

Short of Lying
by Heinz Brandenburg

Bullshit as the Absence of Truthfulness
by Michael R. Kelly

Democracy is not a truth machine
by Thomas R. Wells

Our ability as individuals to get to true facts merely by considering different arguments is distinctly limited. If we only know of one account of the holocaust – what we were taught in school – we are likely to accept it. But whether it is true or false is a matter of luck rather than our intellectual capacities. Now it is reasonable to suppose that if we were exposed to a diversity of claims about the holocaust then our opinions on the subject would become more clearly our own, and our own responsibility. They would be the product of our own intellectual capacities and character instead of simply reflecting which society we happened to be born into. But so what? Holding sincere opinions about whether the holocaust happened is all very well and Millian, but it has no necessary relation to their truth. As Harry Frankfurt notes in his philosophical essay On Bullshit, sincerity is concerned with being true to oneself, not to the nature of the world: from the perspective of truth seeking, sincerity is bullshit.

Knowing this, we can have no faith that the popularity of certain factual claims among people as ordinary as ourselves is any guide to their truth. Democracy is no more equipped to evaluate facts than rational truths. We can all, of course, hold opinions about the civilisational significance of the holocaust and its status as a justification for the state of Israel, and debate them with others in democratic ways. Yet, when it comes to the facts, neither the sincerity with which individuals believe that ‘the holocaust’ is a myth nor the popularity of such beliefs can make them epistemically respectable. 90% of the population denying the holocaust is irrelevant to its truth status. And vice versa.

Rhetoric and Bullshit
by James Fredal

Frankfurt is also indebted (indirectly) to Plato: Phaedrus is as much about the bullshitter’s (Lysias’s or the non-lover’s) lack of concern for (or “love” for) the truth as is Frankfurt’s brief tome. From the perspective of Plato, Lysias’s speech in praise of the non-lover is just so much bullshit not simply because it is not true, but because Lysias is not concerned with telling the truth so much as he is with gaining the affection and attention of his audience: the beloved boy, the paying student or, more to the point, that lover of speeches, Phaedrus himself.

The non-lover described by Lysias in Phaedrus is best understood as Plato’s allegory for sophists who reject any “natural” truth and who remain committed to contradictory arguments as the practical consequence of their general agnosticism. For Lysias’s non-lover, language is not for telling the truth, because the truth is inaccessible: language is for finding and strengthening positions, for gaining advantage, and for exerting influence over others. Richard Weaver offers a similar reading of Phaedrus that sees the non-lover as representing an attitude toward language use (though for Weaver the non-lover is not a sophist, but a scientist).

Others interested in the bullshitter apply a different, more favorable lens. Daniel Mears, for example, draws on Chandra Mukerji’s study of bullshit among hitchhikers, and more generally on Erving Goffman’s study of self-presentation in the interaction order (for example, “Role Distance” and Interaction Rituals) to highlight bullshit as a form of impression management: what, as Mears notes, Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade call a “framing device” for the “construction and maintenance of our social identities and social relationships” (qtd. in Mears 279). For Mears, bullshit is the deliberate (albeit playful) creation of possible but ultimately misleading impressions of self or reality, whether for expressive or instrumental reasons (4).

Like Frankfurt, Mears locates the source of bullshit in the speaker herself and her desire to craft a creditable self-image. But whereas Frankfurt sees bullshitting as a species of deception worse than lying (because at least liars have to know the truth if only to lead us away from it, whereas bullshitters have no concern at all for the truth), Mears understands bullshit as a significant social phenomenon that serves several prosocial functions.7 For Mears, we engage in bullshit for purposes of socialization and play, for self-exploration and self-expression, for the resolution of social tensions and cognitive dissonance, and for gaining an advantage in encounters.

Like Mukerji, Mears emphasizes the playful (though often nontrivial and highly consequential) quality of bullshit, much as the ancient sophists composed speeches as “play”: as exercises and exempla, for enjoyment, for display and impression management, and for study separate from the “real world” of politics and law.

Rhetoric Is Not Bullshit
by Davd J. Tietge
from Bullshit and Philosophy
Kindle Locations 3917-4003

The Truth about Postmodernism

One issue that helps obscure the universality of rhetoric, and thus promotes the pejorative use of ‘rhetoric’, is the popular tendency to oversimplify the “truth-lie” dichotomy. In The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood, Jeremy Campbell reminds us that the reductionistic binary that separates truth from falsity is not only in error, but also that the thoroughly unclear and inconsistent distinction between the true and the false has a long, rich cultural history.180 Those doing much of the speaking in our own era, however, assume that the dividing line between truth and untruth is clear and, more significantly, internalized by the average human. Truth, however, is an elusive concept. While we can cite many examples of truths (that the sky is blue today, that the spoon will fall if dropped, and so forth), these depend on definitions of the words used. The sky is blue because ‘blue’ is the word we use to describe the hue that we have collectively agreed is bluish. We may, however, disagree about what shade of blue the sky is. Is it powder blue? Blue-green? Royal Blue? Interpretive responses to external realities that rely on definition (and language generally) always complicate the true-false binary, especially when we begin to discuss the nature of abstractions involved in, say, religion or metaphysics. The truth of ‘God is good’ depends very heavily upon the speaker’s understanding of God and the nature of goodness, both of which depend upon the speaker’s conceptualization, which may be unique to him, his group, or his cultural environment, and thus neither clear nor truthful to other parties.

Is this rampant relativism? Some might think so, but it is perhaps more useful to suggest that the Absolute Truths that we usually embrace are unattainable because of these complexities of language. Some cultures have seen the linguistic limitations of specifying the Truth. Hinduism has long recognized that language is incapable of revealing Truth; to utter the Truth, it holds, is simultaneously to make it no longer the Truth.

Note here the distinction between capital ‘T’ truth and lower-case ‘t’ truth. Lower-case truths are situational, even personal. They often reflect more the state of mind of the agent making the utterance than the immutable nature of the truth. They are also temporally situated; what may be true now may not be in the future. Truth in this sense is predicated on both perception and stability, and, pragmatically speaking, such truths are tran-sitional and, often, relative. Capital ‘T’ Truths can be traced back at least as far as Plato, and are immutable, pure, and incorruptible. They do not exist in our worldly realm, at least so far as Plato was concerned. This is why Plato was so scornful of rhetoric: he felt that rhetoricians (in particular, the Sophists) were opportunists who taught people how to disguise the Truth with language and persuasion. Whereas Plato imagined a realm in which the worldly flaws and corruption of a physical existence were supplanted by perfect forms, the corporeal domain of human activity was saturated with language, and therefore, could not be trusted to reveal Truth with any certainty.

Contemporary, postmodern interest in truth and meaning turns the tables on Plato and studies meaning and truth in this shifting, less certain domain of human activity. Campbell cites many thinkers from our philosophical past who helped inaugurate this development, but none is more important than Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, humans have no “organ” for discerning Truth, but we do have a natural instinct for falsehood. “Truth,” as an abstraction taken from the subjectivity of normal human activities, was a manufactured fiction that we are not equipped to actually find. On the other hand, a natural aptitude for falsehood is an important survival mechanism for many species. Human beings have simply cultivated it in innovative, sophisticated, ways. As the rhetorician George A. Kennedy has noted, “in daily life, many human speech acts are not consciously intentional; they are automatic reactions to situations, culturally (rather than genetically) imprinted in the brain or rising from the subconscious.”181 Our propensity for appropriate (if not truthful) responses to situations is something nourished by an instinct to survive, interact, protect, and socialize. Civilization gives us as many new ways to do this as there are situations that require response.

This is why Nietzsche carefully distinguished Truth from a belief system that only professed to contain the Truth. Ken Gemes notes that Nietzsche co-ordinated the question of Truth around the pragmatics of survival,182 an observation echoed by Kennedy, who provides examples of animals that deceive for self-preservation. Camouflage, for example, can be seen in plants and animals. Many birds imitate the calls of rival species to fool them to distraction and away from their nests or food sources. Deception, it seems, is common in nature. But Nietzsche took doctrinal Truth (note the “T”) to be one of the most insidious deceptions to occur in human culture, especially as it is articulated in religions. It is not a basic lie that is being promulgated, but rather a lie masquerading as the Truth and, according to Nietzsche, performing certain functions. Truth, that is, is a ritualized fiction, a condition manufactured for institutions and the individuals who control them to maintain their power.

Rhetoric and Bullshit

Truth, deception, control over others. This survey of rhetoric thus brings us close to the territory that Harry Frankfurt explores in On Bullshit. For Frankfurt, however, bullshit has little to do with these complexities about truth and Truth that rhetoric helps us identify. Indeed bullshit, for Frankfurt, has little do with truth at all, insofar as it requires an indifference to truth. Does this mean, then, that language that is not bullshit has settled the matter of truth and has access to truth (or Truth)? Does this lead us to a dichotomy between truth and bullshit that is similar to the dichotomy between truth and falsity that postmodernism criticizes? It may seem that postmodernism has little place in Frankfurt’s view, insofar as he rejects “various forms of skepticism which deny that we have any reliable access to objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are” (p. 64). Indeed, postmodernism is often vilified as the poster child of relativism and skepticism.

Yet postmodernism is far subtler than a mere denial of “objective reality.” Postmodernism claims, rather, that reality is as much a construct of language as it is objective and unchanging. Postmodernism is less about rejecting beliefs about objective reality than about the intersection between material reality and the human interpretations of it that change, mutate, and shift that reality to our own purposes—the kind of small-t truths that Nietzsche addressed. The common complaint about post-modernism, for example, that it denies “natural laws,” forgets that humans noticed and formulated those laws. Postmodernism attempts to supply a vocabulary to describe this kind of process. It is not just “jargon,” as is so often charged; it is an effort to construct a metalinguistic lexicon for dealing with some very difficult and important epistemological questions.

And, not surprisingly, so is rhetoric. Constructing language that deals with the nature of language is a unique human problem. It is meta-cognition at its most complicated because it requires us to use the same apparatus to decode human texts that is contained in the texts themselves—that is, using words to talk about words, what Kenneth Burke referred to in The Rhetoric of Religion as “logology.”183 In no other area of human thinking is this really the case. Most forms of intellectual exploration involve an extraneous phenomenon, event, agent, or object that requires us to bring language to bear upon it in order to observe, describe, classify, and draw conclusions about its nature, its behavior, or its effect. For example, scientific inquiry usually involves an event or a process in the material world that is separate from the instruments we use to describe it. Historical analysis deals with texts as a matter of disciplinary course, yet most historians rarely question the efficacy or the reliability of the language used to convey an event of the remote (or, for that matter, recent) past. Even linguistics, which uses a scientific model to describe language structure, deals little with meaning or textual analysis.

Law is one of the closest cousins of rhetoric. Words are very much a part of the ebb and flow of legal wrangling, and the attention given to meaning and interpretation is central. Yet, even here, there is little theoretical discussion about how words have meaning or how, based on such theory, that meaning can be variously interpreted. Law is more concerned with the fact that words can be interpreted differently and how different agents might interpret language in different ways. This is why legal documents are often so unreadable; in an attempt to control ambiguity, more words (and more words with specific, technical meanings) must be used so that multiple interpretations can be avoided. If theoretical discussions about how language generates meaning were entered into the equation, the law would be impossible to apply in any practical way. Yet, to understand legal intricacies, every law student should be exposed to rhetoric—not so they can better learn how to manipulate a jury or falsify an important document, but so they understand how tenuous and limited language actually is for dealing with ordinary situations. Moreover, nearly every disciplinary area of inquiry uses language, but only rhetoric (and its associated disciplines, especially philosophy of language and literary /cultural criticism, which have influenced the development of modern rhetoric considerably) analyzes language using a hermeneutical instrument designed to penetrate the words to examine their effects—desired or not—on the people who use them.

What, then, qualifies as “bullshit”? Certainly, as I hope I have shown, rhetoric and bullshit are hardly the same thing. They are not even distant cousins. When a student begins a paper with the sentence, “In today’s society, there are many things that people have different and similar opinions about,” it’s a pretty good guess that there is little of rhetorical value there. About the only conclusion a reader can draw is that the student is neither inspired nor able to hide this fact. This is the extent of the subtext, and it could conceivably qualify as bullshit. In this sense, Frankfurt’s characterization of bullshit as “unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about” (p. 63) is a useful differentiation.

But aside from these rather artificial instances, if bullshit does occur at the rate Frankfurt suggests, we have an arduous task in separating the bullshit from more interesting and worthy rhetorical situations. We have all met people whom we know, almost from the moment of acquaintance, are full of bullshit. It is the salesman syndrome that some people just (naturally, it seems) possess. In one sense, then, poor rhetoric—a rhetoric of transparency or obviousness—can be construed as bullshit. For the person with salesman syndrome is certainly attempting to achieve identification with his audience; he may even be attempting to persuade others that he is upright or trustworthy. But he fails because his bullshit is apparent. He is a bad rhetorician in the sense that he fails to convince others that he should be taken seriously, that his words are worthy of attention and, possibly, action.

Bullshit is something we can all recognize. Rhetoric is not. My remedy for this situation is simple: learn rhetoric.

 

The Sociology of Intellectual Life
by Steve Fuller
pp. 147-8

Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) On Bullshit is the latest contribution to a long, distinguished, yet deeply problematic line of Western thought that has attempted to redeem the idea of intellectual integrity from the cynic’s suspicion that it is nothing but high-minded, self-serving prejudice. I say ‘problematic’ because while Plato’s unflattering portrayal of poets and sophists arguably marked the opening salvo in the philosophical war against bullshit, Plato availed himself of bullshit in promoting the ‘myth of the metals’ as a principle of social stratification in his Republic. This doublethink has not been lost on the neo-conservative followers of the great twentieth century Platonist Leo Strauss. […]

The bullshit detector aims to convert an epistemic attitude into a moral virtue: reality can be known only by the right sort of person. This idea, while meeting with widespread approval by philosophers strongly tied to the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, is not lacking in dissenters. The line of dissent is best seen in the history of ‘rhetoric’, a word Plato coined to demonize Socrates’ dialectical opponents, the sophists. The sophists were prepared to teach anyone the art of winning arguments, provided you could pay the going rate. As a series of sophistic interlocutors tried to make clear to Socrates, possession of the skills required to secure the belief of your audience is the only knowledge you really need to have. Socrates famously attacked this claim on several fronts, which the subsequent history of philosophy has often conflated. In particular, Socrates’ doubts about the reliability of the sophists’ techniques have been run together with a more fundamental criticism: even granting the sophists their skills, they are based on a knowledge of human gullibility, not of reality itself.

Bullshit is sophistry under this charitable reading, which acknowledges that the truth may not be strong enough by itself to counteract an artfully presented claim that is not so much outright false as, in the British idiom, ‘economical with the truth’. In stressing the difference between bullshit and lies, Frankfurt clearly has this conception in mind, though he does sophistry a disservice by casting the bullshitter’s attitude toward the truth as ‘indifference’. On the contrary, the accomplished bullshitter must be a keen student of what people tend to regard as true, if only to cater to those tendencies so as to serve her own ends. What likely offends Frankfurt and other philosophers here is the idea that the truth is just one more tool to be manipulated for personal advantage. Conceptual frameworks are simply entertained and then discarded as their utility passes. The nature of the offence, I suspect, is the divine eye-view implicated in such an attitude – the very idea that one could treat in a detached fashion the terms in which people normally negotiate their relationship to reality. A bullshitter revealed becomes a god unmade.

pp. 152-3

The bullshit detector believes not only that there is a truth but also that her own access to it is sufficiently reliable and general to serve as a standard by which others may be held accountable. Protestants appeared prepared to accept the former but not the latter condition, which is why dissenters were encouraged – or perhaps ostracized – to establish their own ministries. The sophists appeared to deny the former and possibly the latter condition as well. Both Protestants and sophists are prime candidates for the spread of bullshit because they concede that we may normally address reality in terms it does not recognize – or at least do not require it to yield straight ‘yes-or-no’, ‘true-or-false’ answers. In that case, we must make up the difference between the obliqueness of our inquiries and the obtuseness of reality’s responses. That ‘difference’ is fairly seen as bullshit. When crystallized as a philosophy of mind or philosophy of language, this attitude is known as antirealism. Its opposite number, the background philosophy of bullshit detectors, is realism.

The difference in the spirit of the two philosophies is captured as follows: do you believe that everything you say and hear is bullshit unless you have some way of showing whether it is true or false; or rather, that everything said and heard is simply true or false, unless it is revealed to be bullshit? The former is the antirealist, the latter the realist response. Seen in those terms, we might say that the antirealist regards reality as inherently risky and always under construction (Caveat credor: ‘Let the believer beware!’) whereas the realist treats reality as, on the whole, stable and orderly – except for the reprobates who try to circumvent the system by producing bullshit. In this respect, On Bullshit may be usefully read as an ad hominem attack on antirealists. Frankfurt himself makes passing reference to this interpretation near the end of the essay (Frankfurt 2005: 64–65). Yet, he appears happy to promote the vulgar image of antirealism as intellectually, and perhaps morally, slipshod, instead of treating it as the philosophically honorable position that it is.

A case in point is Frankfurt’s presentation of Wittgenstein as one of history’s great bullshit detectors (Frankfurt 2005: 24–34). He offers a telling anecdote in which the Viennese philosopher objects to Fania Pascal’s self description as having been ‘sick as a dog’. Wittgenstein reportedly told Pascal that she misused language by capitalizing on the hearer’s easy conflation of a literal falsehood with a genuine condition, which is made possible by the hearer’s default anthropocentric bias. Wittgenstein’s objection boils down to claiming that, outside clearly marked poetic contexts, our intellectual end never suffices alone to justify our linguistic means. Frankfurt treats this point as a timeless truth about how language structures reality. Yet, it would be quite easy, especially recalling that this ‘truth’ was uttered seventy years ago, to conclude that Wittgenstein’s irritation betrays a spectacular lack of imagination in the guise of scrupulousness.

Wittgenstein’s harsh judgement presupposes that humans lack any real access to canine psychology, which renders any appeal to dogs purely fanciful. For him, this lack of access is an established fact inscribed in a literal use of language, not an open question answers to which a figurative use of language might offer clues for further investigation. Nevertheless, scientists informed by the Neo-Darwinian synthesis – which was being forged just at the time of Wittgenstein’s pronouncement – have quite arguably narrowed the gap between the mental lives of humans and animals in research associated with ‘evolutionary psychology’. As this research makes more headway, what Wittgenstein confidently declared to be bullshit in his day may tomorrow appear as having been a prescient truth. But anyone holding such a fluid view of verifiability would derive scant comfort from either Wittgenstein or Frankfurt, who act as if English linguistic intuitions, circa 1935, should count indefinitely as demonstrable truths.

Some philosophers given to bullshit detection are so used to treating any Wittgensteinian utterance as a profundity that it never occurs to them that Wittgenstein may have been himself a grandmaster of bullshit. The great bullshit detectors whom I originally invoked, Nietzsche and Mencken, made themselves vulnerable to critics by speaking from their own self-authorizing standpoint, which supposedly afforded a clear vista for distinguishing bullshit from its opposite. Wittgenstein adopts the classic bullshitter’s technique of ventriloquism, speaking through the authority of someone or something else in order to be spared the full brunt of criticism.

I use ‘adopts’ advisedly, since the deliberateness of Wittgenstein’s rhetoric remains unclear. What was he trying to do: to speak modestly without ever having quite controlled his spontaneously haughty manner, or to exercise his self-regarding superiority as gently as possible so as not to frighten the benighted? Either way, Wittgenstein became – for a certain kind of philosopher – the standard-bearer of linguistic rectitude, where ‘language’ is treated as a proxy for reality itself. Of course, to the bullshitter, this description also fits someone whose strong personality cowed the impressionable into distrusting their own thought processes. As with most successful bullshit, the trick is revealed only after it has had the desired effect and the frame of reference has changed. Thus, Wittgenstein’s precious concern about Pascal’s account of her state of health should strike, at least some readers today, as akin to a priest’s fretting over a parishioner’s confession of impure thoughts. In each case, the latter is struck by something that lies outside the box in which the former continues to think.

If Wittgenstein was a bullshitter, how did he manage to take in professed enemies of bullshit like Frankfurt? One clue is that most bullshit is forward looking, and Wittgenstein’s wasn’t. The bullshitter normally refers to things whose prima facie plausibility immunizes the hearer against checking their actual validity. The implication is that the proof is simply ‘out there’ waiting be found. But is there really such proof? Here the bullshitter is in a race against time. A sufficient delay in checking sources has salvaged the competence and even promoted the prescience of many bullshitters. Such was the spirit of Paul Feyerabend’s (1975) notorious account of Galileo’s ‘discoveries’, which concluded that his Papal Inquisitors were originally justified in their scepticism, even though Galileo’s followers subsequently redeemed his epistemic promissory notes.

In contrast, Wittgenstein’s unique brand of bullshit was backward-looking, always reminding hearers and readers of something they should already know but had perhaps temporarily forgotten. Since Wittgenstein usually confronted his interlocutors with mundane examples, it was relatively easy to convey this impression. The trick lay in immediately shifting the context from the case at hand to what Oxford philosophers in the 1950s called a ‘paradigm case’ that was presented as a self-evident standard of usage against which to judge the case at hand. That Wittgenstein, a non-native speaker of English, impressed one or two generations of Britain’s philosophical elite with just this mode of argumentation remains the envy of the aspiring bullshitter. Ernest Gellner (1959), another émigré from the old Austro Hungarian Empire, ended up ostracized from the British philosophical establishment for offering a cutting diagnosis of this phenomenon as it was unfolding. He suggested that Wittgenstein’s success testified to his ability to feed off British class anxiety, which was most clearly marked in language use. An academically sublimated form of such language-driven class anxiety remains in the discipline of sociolinguistics (Bernstein 1971–77).

Yet, after nearly a half-century, Gellner’s diagnosis is resisted, despite the palpable weakening of Wittgenstein’s posthumous grip on the philosophical imagination. One reason is that so many living philosophers still ride on Wittgenstein’s authority – if not his mannerisms – that to declare him a bullshitter would amount to career suicide. But a second reason is also operative, one that functions as an insurance policy against future debunkers. Wittgenstein is often portrayed, by himself and others, as mentally unbalanced. You might think that this would render his philosophical deliverances unreliable. On the contrary, Wittgenstein’s erratic disposition is offered as evidence for his spontaneously guileless nature – quite unlike the controlled and calculated character of bullshitters. Bullshit fails to stick to Wittgenstein because he is regarded as an idiot savant.

More Words

I’ve written so often about knowledge and ignorance, truth and denialism. My mind ever returns to the topic, because it is impossible to ignore in this media-saturated modern world. There are worthy things to debate and criticize, but it is rare to come across much of worth amidst all the noise, all the opinionating and outrage.

I don’t want to just dismiss it all. I don’t want to ignore it and live blissfully in my own private reality or my own narrow media bubble. I feel compelled to understand the world around me. I actually do care about what makes people tick, not just to better persuade them to my own view, but more importantly to understand humanity itself.

Still, noble aspirations aside, it can be frustrating and I often let it show. Why do we make everything so hard? Why do we fight tooth and nail against being forced to face reality? Humans are strange creatures.

At some point, yet more argument seems pointless. No amount of data and evidence will change anything. We can’t deal with even relatively minor problems. Hope seems like an act of desperation in face of the more immense global challenges. Humanity will change when we are forced to change, when maintaining the status quo becomes impossible.

It is irrational to expect most humans to be rational about almost anything of significance. But that doesn’t mean speaking out doesn’t matter.

I considered offering some detailed thoughts and observations, but I already expressed my self a bit in another post. Instead, I’ll just point to a somewhat random selection of what others have already written, a few books and articles I’ve come across recently—my main focus has been climate change:

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?
By Madhusree Mukerjee

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine
By Daniel Smith

Learning to Die in the Antrhopocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
By Roy Scranton

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future
By Dale Jamieson

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
By Timothy Morton

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
By Rob Nixon

The Culture of Make Believe
By Derrick Jensen

The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life
By Eviatar Zerubavel

States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
By Stanley Cohen

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life
By Kari Marie Norgaard

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
By George Marshall

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action
by Per EspenStoknes

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate
By Andrew Hoffman

The Republican War on Science
By Chris Mooney

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future
By Donald R. Prothero

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand
By Haydn Washington

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming
By James Hoggan

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

The man who studies the spread of ignorance
By Georgina Kenyon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein

Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Process of Creative Self-Destruction
By Christopher Wright & Daniel Nyberg

Exxon: The Road Not Taken
By Neela Banerjee

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA
By E.G. Vallianatos

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
By Timothy Mitchell

Democracy Inc.: How Members Of Congress Have Cashed In On Their Jobs
By The Washington Post, David S. Fallis, Scott Higham (Author), Dan Keating, & Kimberly Kindy

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
By Sheldon S. Wolin

What is the opposite of beauty?

“When I ask my students, ‘What is the opposite of beauty?’ they very quickly respond, ‘ugly.’ That’s what society tells us. But what if I say it’s glamour? We start seeing that glamour is the most dangerous thing because it disguises itself as beautiful, attracts us to it, ensnares us in false hopes and superficiality, and in that process takes us away from real beauty…”
~ Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu

Glamour is a charade, a deadly charade. It is superficial, a show, an entertainment. It is numbing, deadening. It is an image that seeks to replace reality.

Beauty, on the other hand, is the human soul laid bare. It is the essence of meaning, the expression of authenticity.

The peddlers of glamour would like us to believe that beauty is ugliness, that ugliness is beauty, to forget what is real. The point I take from the quote is that ugliness, as mainstream society defines it, isn’t the opposite of beauty.

That is why I chose this image by Banksy. The image shows the truth of cultural imperialism, of the military-capitalist complex. It is an image that subverts the image of consumerism. What is really being sold and at what cost? The line between advertising and propaganda is so thin as to be non-existent.

The girl running from the Napalm bombing represents much of what our society calls ugly, expressing pain and suffering, fear and desperation. But in reality the images of capitalism are what is ugly for what they seek to hide, the dark and violent underpinnings of the system of power and profit.

That is what we don’t want to face. That is what entertainment and infotainment is meant to distract us from.

Looking the Other way: Willful Ignorance and Intentional Blindness

Ignorant. There is no word like it. Calling someone ‘uninformed’ or ‘misinformed’ doesn’t have the same force nor even the exact same meaning. No word can take the place of ‘ignorant’.

Yet it is politically incorrect to call someone ignorant. I’ve had comments deleted on Amazon reviews because I called someone ignorant when I meant it as a literal statement in that person was, as defined by the dictionary, “lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular.” It is considered mean-spirited to point out that someone is ignorant, even when or especially when it is true.

This just makes it all the more frustrating. Our society has a taboo about facing ignorance. We wouldn’t know how to function as a society without such ignorance. It can feel like it goes beyond even just ignorance. Along with an unwillingness to talk about ignorance, there is an ignorance of ignorance. It is the default position for nearly all social interactions and public discourses.

It can seem pointless even trying to blame anyone for being ignorant. The seeming unconscious obliviousness is immense. People are just ignorant. They don’t know any better, so the story goes.

My focus has been mostly on racism as of late. The ignorance in this area is more frustrating still. It is a systemic and institutional ignorance that makes possible the systemic and institutional racism.

Why are so many people ignorant about the continuing reality of racism?

“It can be tempting to think that today most white people are racist primarily because of an inadvertent lack of knowledge about the cultures and lives of people of color. Many white people in the United States and other white privileged countries do not often personally interact with people of color, and when they do, such interactions often are of the trivial sort found in consumer exchanges. Given the de facto but persistent racial segregation of many cities, neighborhoods, and schools and the paucity of non-stereotypical portrayals of people of color on television and in Hollywood movies, white solipsism is a real problem.”
~ Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, Kindle Locations 219-223

But is ignorance reality a default state? How can an unintentional passivity toward racism cause it to be to remain so stubbornly in place?

There is a study that was about attentional focus. It measured this by eye gaze. As I recall, it had to do with differences between liberals and conservatives. There was something that either conservatives don’t appreciate or doesn’t fit into their worldview. They put an image of this thing or something like that in their visual field. What the researchers found was that the people who had a vested interest in not seeing something intentionally didn’t look in the direction of what they didn’t want to see. At some level, they had seen it, even though in questions they acknowledged no awareness of it being there.

These people went to great effort to maintain their experiential blindness. This is how willful ignorance operates. There is an intention behind the behavior, even if it isn’t fully conscious.

“A similar temptation is to think that white people are racist because they lack accurate knowledge about the (alleged) scientific, biological basis for racial categories. This view of racism holds that many people fail to understand that there are no necessary and sufficient biological or genetic conditions for dividing the human population into distinct races. Because of this failure, they mistakenly think that race and racial hierarchies are real. Demonstrate the lack of scientific basis for race, so says this eliminativist view, and racism will disappear because the categories on which it is based-white, black, and so on-will have disappeared. Racial categories and the racism they support are like the emperor who wears no clothes. All one need do is honestly point out the emperor’s nakedness, and the illusion of his clothing will disappear. Dismantling the biological theories of race upon which racism rests likewise requires merely the same straightforward good will to acknowledge the obvious: the lack of the scientific data to support racial categorization.’
~ Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, Kindle Locations 227-232

I’m a lover of knowledge. I want to believe that knowledge matters. The issue isn’t really about knowledge, but about ignorance and the two aren’t necessarily oppositional. People know and don’t know things all the time. People are fully capable of dividing their minds and their lives, never making the connections that would cause them to see the full picture.

Knowledge isn’t just about facts, but more importantly about comprehension, about a visceral and emotional sense of really getting what something means and why it matters. Knowledge isn’t an abstract intellectual exercise. Truth is a moral force or it is nothing at all.

Pointing out data without a way of conveying meaning won’t undo ignorance. List the numbers of dead in the recent genocide against Palestinians won’t have an impact. But if you forced someone to spend a week having Israeli bombs falling all around them with dead bodies and destruction that couldn’t be ignored, all of a sudden that list of numbers would be viscerally real and would have an emotional impact. Mere knowledge that could be easily dismissed would become a truth with moral force.

Westerners can be told the data that objectively proves genocide. But data is just data. There is great power of the mind to not really see or comprehend the data, to dismiss it, ignore it and rationalize it away. It isn’t unintentional.

The oppression of dark-skinned people in Palestine follows the same basic pattern of the oppression of dark-skinned people in America. The mechanisms are the same. The details really don’t matter in defense of the social order and in upholding the status quo. Much has changed in the US over the centuries. Racism morphs to fit the times and yet basically continues on.

I sometimes try to make sense of this as mere inertia. But that doesn’t really explain anything at all. That is just an avoidance of responsibility and an avoidance of the despair that would accompany taking responsibility.

“Rather than an innocuous oversight, it was an active, deliberate achievement that was carefully (though not necessarily consciously) constructed, maintained, and protected. Du Bois eventually saw that to understand the white ignorance of non-white people, one has to hear the active verb “to ignore” at the root of the noun.”

We are ignorant because we ignore. This is willful ignorance. It isn’t just racial bias in institutions, residue of past racism. No, racism is alive and well, in the minds of all of us. We are afraid to call a spade a spade. It is politically incorrect to point out that our society is still racist.

Comedy of Truth and Politics of Comedy

I just finished watching The Campaign. It stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. Considering those two, you know the type of humor to expect. It wasn’t a masterpiece of comedic genius or anything, but it was a lovely fantasy about honesty winning in corrupt big money politics.

It would be nicer if that fantasy were a reality, but fantasy has its purposes as well. It is easier to make such fantasies reality, if we can collectively imagine them. Comedy creates the space for imagining what we otherwise would consider absurd, such as honesty in politics.

Comedy is one of the rare mediums where cynicism doesn’t always prevail and that is a good thing. Oddly, a comedy like this is probably a better inspiration for the democratic impulse than all the serious dramas combined, all the serious drams that attempt to portray the dark reality of the problems we face. If we can laugh at our problems, they feel less overwhelming. If we can laugh at the corrupt fools running and ruining our country, then we can stop taking them and their bullshit so seriously.

We need to elect more comedians into politics. Even if the Three Stooges were running Congress, it couldn’t get worse. As for the president, I’d vote for Stephen Colbert. Or if we are to have a woman president, maybe our first one should be Sarah Silverman. Comedians in our country speak more truth than any mainstream politician or news reporter. Instead of a corporate stooge actor like Reagan, we could use a truth-speaking comedian as the leader of the free world.

Besides, politics is already a big show. Since politics is a national pastime and the most popular form of entertainment, it might as well be humorous and amusing.

Most Americans Know What is True

There is one topic I return to more often than most, a topic that has been on my mind for about a decade now. This topic has to do with the confluence of ideology, labels, and social science. I’ve written about this topic more than I care to remember.

I’m about equally interested in conservatism and liberalism (along with other ideological labels). But liberalism in some ways has intrigued me more because of all the massive confusion surrounding the label. Most Americans hold fairly strong left-leaning views on many of the most important major issues.

There are a number of facts that have become permanently caught in my craw. I considered two of these in a post from not too long ago, Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism. In that post, I pointed out that most Americans are more in agreement with one another than they are with the more right-leaning political elites who claim to speak for and represent them. But there is a complicating factor involving the odd mixture of liberalism and conservatism in the American Mind (I never get tired of quoting this fascinating explanation):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

What the heck is a symbolic conservatism? I’m not quite sure. I don’t know if anyone has that one figured out yet.

I also pointed out that even most Southerners are on the left side of the spectrum. It’s just that most Southerners are disenfranchized. If most Southerners voted, Republicans would never be able to win another election in the South without completely altering what they campaign on.

The claim of a polarized population is overstated. This brings me to a new angle. I came across another piece of data that now can be permanently caught in my craw with the rest. It is from a book by Cass R. Sunstein, not an author I normally read, but the book looked intriguing. He wrote (How to Humble a Wingnut and Other Lessons from Behavioral Economics, Kindle Locations 249-253):

Recent studies by Yale University’s John Bullock and his co-authors suggest that with respect to facts, Democrats and Republicans disagree a lot less than we might think.

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe.

This was from a fairly short essay that ends with this conclusion (Kindle Locations 271-282):

What’s going on here? Bullock and his colleagues think that when people answer factual questions about politics, they engage in a degree of cheerleading, even at the expense of the truth. In a survey setting, there is no cost to doing that.

With economic incentives, of course, the calculus is altered. If you stand to earn some money with an accurate answer, cheerleading becomes much less attractive . And if you will lose real money with an inaccurate answer, you will put a higher premium on accuracy.

What is especially striking is that Bullock and his colleagues were able to slash polarization with very modest monetary rewards. If the incentives were greater (say, $ 100 for a correct answer and $ 25 for “I don’t know”), there is every reason to expect that partisan differences would diminish still more.

It might seem disturbing to find such a divergence between what people say and what they actually believe, but in a way, these findings are immensely encouraging. They suggest that with respect to facts, partisan differences are much less sharp than they seem—and that political polarization is often an artifact of the survey setting.

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

Incentives can make people honest. And when honest, people agree a lot more. This reminds me of research showing that, by doing word jumble puzzles and such, people can be primed for rational thought and indeed they do think more rationally under those conditions. Between incentives and priming, we could have a much higher quality public debate and political action.

This also reminds me of implicit knowledge (see here and here). Many writers have observed the strange phenomenon of people simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Maybe this directly relates to incentives and similar factors. It might not just be an issue of incentives to be honest, but also incentives to be self-aware, to admit to themselves what they already know, even when such truths might be uncomfortable and inconvenient.

A further confounding factor, as research also shows, the political elites and the political activists are very much polarized. Those with the most power and influence are the stumbling blocks for democracy or any other moral and effective political process. This plays straight into the cheerleading of the masses. Too many people will simply go along with what the pundits and politicians tell them, unless some other motivation causes them to think more carefully and become more self-aware.

One wonders what the public debate would be like about issues from global warming to economic inequality, if the incentives were different. A single honest public debate could transform our society. It would be a shock to the entire social, political, and economic system.

Truth-Seeking, An Engaged Citizenry

We should always take seriously the views we disagree with. Dismissing or ridiculing is a bad habit to get into. If we leave a claim unchallenged, it remains powerful. We should stand up for our convictions and we should give respect to the convictions of others, especially when there is conflict.

An example of this is the Right’s view of sexuality and family values, a set of very emotional and polarizing issues. I’ve heard the argument that the decline of the Roman Empire correlated with an increase of homosexuality. This is taken as an assumption, but it is a serious argument that shouldn’t go unchallenged. I know a variant of it can be found in some history books. There apparently were some people in the late Roman Empire, as it became Christianized, who began to complain more about sexual deviancy.

The problem with this argument, the problem we should point out again and again, is that there is no actual data that homosexuality was increasing. Also, we should endlessly repeat that, either way, correlation isn’t causation. An increase of allegations isn’t the same thing as an increase of what is being alleged. Nor does it say much about the real reasons of societal decline, which were complex and about which there is little consensus.

This kind of argument is also applied to our own time.

These past decades saw an increase of fear-mongering about violent crime even as violent crime was decreasing. A culture of fear-mongering and scapegoating rarely has much to do with objective reality. For this reason, we should never let such unjustified paranoia and blame to stand unchallenged. The point is to be persistent and stubborn, even to a fault. We should never back down when it comes to false claims. But if we believe a claim is false, it is up to us to prove it. And we should do so loudly and publicly.

That is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy, if they care to keep the democracy they have. We should never underestimate the enemies of democracy, no matter where it comes from, whether from our opponents or apparent allies. We have to hold ourselves up to a higher standard and maintain the moral high ground.

It isn’t just about rhetoric and persuasion. We must put truth before all else, and we should follow truth wherever it leads. And if what we assumed to be true turns out to be false, we should admit to that loudly and publicly. That is the only way we can have a positive influence. We should never be afraid of what we know and what we can’t be certain of. Intellectual humility is a strength, not a weakness.

We must demand this of others, as we demand it of ourselves. It is necessary that we strive to model our own ideals. Democracy means little, if not taken as a personal set of values to live by. Principled conviction is only a moral good when based on honesty, when putting the public good before mere self-interest. What is the point of winning a debate when you lose your own integrity?

Any public good worthy of the name is based in truth and honesty. When we collectively prioritize such public good, we will finally have a democracy, not just in name and form but also in substance. The public good doesn’t necessitate agreement about everything. Disagreement can actually be useful when based on fair-minded public debate. That is what is called an engaged citizenry.

Knowledge Doesn’t Matter

Does knowledge matter?

I was having a discussion about that question with a friend. He isn’t an anti-intellectual, but he is one of those post-Enlightenment New Agey liberals who mistrusts rationality. To give you an idea of the type of guy he is, he didn’t cite evidence for his argument, but instead cited a lyric to a song. To give you a further hint, my dear friend in support of his view referred to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant… don’t even get me started on Haidt.

I, on the other hand, am a fierce defender of truth. Damn it, just give me some red-blooded truth and give it to me raw. It was only my friendship that made me hold my tongue in that discussion. I will never understand any person, whether conservative or liberal, who thinks truth doesn’t matter or who will devalue it in any way.

Truth. Not just information, not just knowledge, but all of that and the insight, the wisdom that goes with it. Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth that enflames the senses, pierces the heart and sets the mind ablaze.

Truth isn’t some tiny detail. Truth is reality itself. We breathe truth for if you try to stop breathing, I swear to God, you quickly will know it. Now, that is the force of truth. It ain’t no intellectual game. We have to start getting serious about this reality we all share.

The force of truth can at times hit you like a brick wall. I personally love that sensation. It means I’m awake and still alive. My face smacks up against something that doesn’t move and I start to suspect that there might be something fundamental in front of me. So I reach out into the dark, find a switch, turn it on… and well damn there is a wall right there. What kind of fool tries to walk through a wall? A fool walking in the darkness of ignorance,  I tell ya.

But truth is usually more subtle than that. It creeps up on us. Little bits of info piling up, a comment here and an example there, an observation here and an insight there. Then before ya know it, a new understanding begins to dawn. Usually, though, something finally brings it all together.

I’ll give you two examples, one of each variety: a face-smacking wall and a slow dawning.

The first example is my having learned about sundown towns.

That bit of truth came at me from an angle. I was reading about regional cultures when the author, David Hackett Fischer, made a comment another author’s work (Sundown Towns). So, good truth-seeker that I am, I bought that other book and began reading it. That other author, James W. Loewen, was talking about my particular region. He even mentioned a town I live right next to. Once upon a time, that town had a bunch of black families… and then shortly later all the blacks disappeared. Where did they go? This happened a thousand times over, all across the North.

I knew racism existed in the North, including systemic racism, but I didn’t have a clue that it was so pervasive. I just figured Iowa was naturally a white place where blacks didn’t live in the past. I figured blacks had little interest in living here, until recently that is. I assumed blacks simply went to the big cities because that was where the jobs were. I assumed most blacks wanted to live with blacks in black neighborhoods and ditto for whites with whites, as that has been the basic order of the society I’ve grown up in.

It never occurred to me that after the Civil War large numbers of blacks moved all over this freaking country in every state and in every town, rural and urban, North and South, East and West… but that they soon found they weren’t welcome in many of these places, not welcome in particular neighborhoods or in some cases entire states. Only after this great migration did they all head to the big cities seeking safety in numbers.

I was ignorant of this piece of history. Plain and simple, I was ignorant. Worse still, my white privilege allowed me to remain ignorant for so long. My white skin color and my white Midwestern heritage corresponds with the dominant white culture. Just because I’ve had black friends doesn’t change this condition. My only excuse is that I was ‘educated’ to be ignorant in this way. Sad but true. Ignorance must be learned… and so ignorance must be unlearned.

Reading Loewen’s book on the topic was an educational experience, a brick wall that bluntly forced me to reassess what I thought I knew.

The second example has to do with affirmative action and white privilege.

Over the years, I’ve come across mentions of the relationship of racism to the Populist and Progressive Eras.

For example, I came across the intriguing fact that the KKK supported universal public schooling and the banning of child labor. The reason they took this position was because kids, black and white, were competing for the same jobs that KKK members wanted for themselves. So, if you got the kids out of the factories, you had to justify it by sending them somewhere and public schools made for a good way of keeping the kids occupied, and as any good KKK member knows you particularly want to keep those black kids occupied or else they’ll cause trouble.

Another example I’ve learned about in the past is that black farmers didn’t get the same funding that white farmers received. This was done intentionally, of course. It is no big secret at this point. Just another data point in a long history of racism.

For whatever reason, I didn’t quite fully and coherently think about this in a larger context. It didn’t quite come together, beyond knowing about the general history of racism. I knew many of the details and incidents. And I knew the individual pieces might fit together in various ways. But it took someone else to clearly connect the dots before I saw the picture it formed.

The person in question is another author, Ira Katznelson, and the guilty book is When Affirmative Action Was White. It isn’t a matter of the original intention of many progressive reforms. Racism was rampant, but most people weren’t overtly thinking in terms of racism. Even so, racism was able to trump other concerns by co-opting the policies that were implemented. It became white affirmative action by default. The wording of progressive reform didn’t state it as white affirmative action, but that was the result successfully implemented by the racists in power who wished to maintain their grip on power. Progressivism was just a convenient front for old racial injustices. This is how Jim Crow was rooted in the New Deal.

Framing white privilege as affirmative action helped me to see the profound impact that it has had. It wasn’t just racist policies in the South or even isolated racist incidents in the North. It was a systematic strategy that was nationwide, even if the strongest impetus was in the Jim Crow South. With this new framing, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.

Ignorance is a strange thing. We can’t know we are ignorant for we are ignorant of our being ignorant. We don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know that there is something we could know, until something forces us to begin to know and then the comfy sweater of our ignorance begins to unravel.

Ignorance upon ignorance, generation after generation. All of this ignorance, individual and collective, took a long while to be learned. It took our entire history, in fact. And so it will take a very long time to unlearn. We should see others in this more forgiving light, especially older generations. But a forgiving attitude can be a hard thing to hold onto when the stakes are so high. Culpability must be accepted, even if the blame game isn’t helpful.

In this regard, my parents are typical of their generation… or I should say they are typical of white Americans of their generation… a generation, by the way, that was born and raised when Jim Crow laws were at their height and were well into adulthood when the Voting Rights Act was passed. If anything, they should personally know of the effects of racism better than I know it for they saw it when it was truly powerful as a blatant political force. But they don’t know what they don’t want to know, don’t know what offers them no personal benefit to know. No surprise to that normal human response toward uncomfortable truths.

My mom doesn’t see white privilege at all, even though she obviously benefited from it. My dad’s thinking is a bit more nuanced. But all my dad can offer, when his good fortune is pointed out, is that God must have been looking out for him. I guess God disproportionately looks out for whites and in particular middle class white males. It never occurs to him to consider the possibility that he is no more worthy of divine intervention than all the poor minorities. I’ve heard that Jesus message is specifically about helping the least among us, but I guess that doesn’t apply to issues like racial oppression and prejudice. God, after all, is a conservative, maybe even a right-winger. There are even rumors that God is white.

Joking aside, my parents are as much the product of their environments as I am of mine. They simply believe what they were raised to believe, speak what they were taught to know. It is their truth, even if it isn’t objective fact. I don’t wish to deny my parents’ sense of truth in their pride in having worked hard or even that God has looked kindly upon them. Those are their truths. But a personal truth becomes an untruth when uprooted from the larger truth of our shared reality. The trick is to begin with the truths you know and from there expand your vision. Attacking someone’s truth, however, creates fear and doesn’t encourage them to expand their vision.

I can feel righteous at times, but it’s hard to maintain righteousness. We are all ignorant to varying degrees and in various ways. Still, I want to be righteous about truth and righteous for the right reasons. It really does matter. For that reason, I want people to see the truth, be it a brick wall to their face or a dawning of the light.

More than anything, I respect not just truth but a passionate zeal for truth. We can’t let ignorance get us down, not even our own. We have to be brutally honest, especially with ourselves. Words must not be minced.

Now, here is the kind of thing that inspires me, that gets my juices going. Tim Wise is a truth-teller about racism, if there ever was one. Listening to him speak, I had to restrain myself from yelling out loud ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord’. Maybe it isn’t the eloquence of an MLK speech, but it sure does hit the spot. All the MSM BS makes me downright hungry for a healthy heaping plateful of simple straightforward meat-and-potatoes truth-telling.

The Force of Truth

It sometimes feels like those of us who value truth and honesty are at a disadvantage in these times of mass misinformation and disinformation, willful ignorance and echo chambers. But the internet despite its failings has opened up dialogue in a way never before possible. The average person can access info that even the most educated elites didn’t know in the past.

On the world wide web, a person can live in a reality tunnel if they choose. But when they do so, they isolate themselves and so disempower their impact on the world. They end up silencing themselves, a just result in a too often unjust world.

I’ll give an example of this.

Just recently, I was debating someone in their book review and someone else joined them in their defense. So, I took them both on which wasn’t hard to do because I had the facts on my side. These people weren’t necessarily ignorant in the willful sense, at least not initially. They simply didn’t know the facts because no one had taught them the facts and it never occurred to them to look at alternative views.

They argued with me for several comments. But I ended the debate by offering direct quotes of the person in question. The review was on Amazon and so the reviewer couldn’t censor the debate. They couldn’t silence me directly without also silencing themselves. They removed their review which is their admitting they were wrong and knew it.

That has to hurt their sense of self esteem. They can never again enter a debate with confidence that they know what they are talking about. From now on, they will live in fear of debate because they fear the truth. They can now become a recluse who hides away in their preferred reality tunnel listening to their own views echo back to them. But in doing so they’ve accepted defeat. They’ve chosen to resign from debate and so have removed themselves from the battlefield of ideas.

This is the second time I’ve managed to get someone to remove their review simply by offering facts they couldn’t refute. I’m only one person. Imagine if every lover and seeker of truth were to do the same. It’s a win/win scenario, for me at least. If they remove the untruth, that decreases the misinfo/disinfo in the world. If they don’t remove the untruth, they are forced to leave my refutation of their untruth for all to see.

I’ve noticed this kind of power to influence in other ways as well. There are the right-wingers who will mindlessly repeat that America is not a democracy. I saw this regularly online for years. I pointed out the falsity of this every single time I saw it. Many other people did the same. Now, you rarely hear right-wingers say this anymore.

The force of truth is more powerful than we sometimes realize. This makes me happy.