by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is an essay by Peter Ludlow, “The Varieties of Bullshit.” In the age of QAnon, Donald Trump, and now Vladimir Putin spinning up demonstrably false narratives with a stunning level of perceived sincerity, it seems an apt moment to reflect on why this kind of obvious deception is so ubiquitous — and so powerful.
For thousands of years, philosophers have pondered the role of lying in human affairs. The great Greek philosophers waxed eloquently on the topic, and St. Augustine wrote a whole book On Lying. In more recent times, philosopher and Cornell professor Max Black gave a lecture in 1982 “On the Prevalence of Humbug” that took on a life of its own and became arguably his most notable work.
Black expanded on an idea previously explored by Augustine and others that there are more dimensions than simply lying, which he defined at deliberately saying something that one knows to be false. The speaker’s state of mind and intent are equally important, he asserted. In fact, Back pointed out that there is “some kind of falseness” that goes beyond simply saying something that is not true; or as William Blake put it,
“A truth that’s told with bad intent
“Beats all the lies you can invent.”
Black points to P.T. Barnum as a prime example of a prolific bullshitter, who famously coined the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Barnum, in fact, wrote his own book, Humbugs of the World, exploring the history and art of what he himself did best: deceiving people. Black went to on observe “the ubiquity and inevitability of lying as an exercise of power over the deceived.”
In 1988 Harry Frankfurt responded to Black with an essay of his own, “On Bullshit.” Besides updating the nomenclature to the new standard, he attempted to make a clearer distinction between a “liar” and a “bullshitter.” In his view, the heart of bullshitting is the perpetrator’s indifference to the truth: The speaker is not concerned with the “truth-value” of what she or he says. “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as the essence of bullshit.” Frankfurt also points out a corollary: That it’s impossible to lie unless one knows the truth, whereas “productive bullshit requires no such conviction.” Instead, bullshitters substitute “sincerity” for truth, once again raising the importance of mental state: It’s less what is actually true and more about conveying a sincere belief that it’s true. That’s very close to Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness” — things that aren’t necessarily true, but that give enough of an impression that they are such that people who want to believe them are sucked into the vortex (à la QAnon). “Sincerity itself is bullshit,” Frankfurt says, in certain circumstances.
And that brings us to Ludlow’s contribution to this long-standing discussion of bullshit. Ludlow doesn’t disagree with Black or Frankfurt, but argues that they took too narrow a perspective of bullshit, whereas in fact there are many types of it within a larger taxonomy. He borrows from former U.C. Berkeley professor H. Paul Grice what he called the “Cooperative Principle” for conversation, which he declared to be, “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” Grice attached four maxims to his principle:
- Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as required, but not more informative than required.
- Quality: Do not say what you believe to be false, or that for which you lack adequate evidence.
- Relation: Be relevant.
- Manner: Avoid obscure expressions, avoid ambiguity, be brief, and be orderly.
Ludlow uses this as a basis for a much broader taxonomy for “bullshit,” claiming that violating any of the four maxims could qualify. Where Black and Frankfurt understandably focused on the Quality maxim, there are plenty of cases where violations of the others are obvious bullshit. And Trump presents us with so many examples: his veering off into wild digressions, his personal attacks, his references to “people are saying that …”, his long, rambling speeches — all on top of his clear indifference to whether anything he says is true. Trump is an expert, well-practiced bullshitter — as are many other business leaders past and present (Mike Lindell and Steve Jobs come to mind) and politicians.
What makes this topic particularly relevant in this moment is Vladimir Putin’s ascendence to “apex bullshitter” on the global stage as he leads Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many things he says, including both his purported justification for the invasion and his goals for doing so, are clearly false, and yet as propaganda so far they seem to be effective with the Russian people (by reports, two-thirds of Russians support the invasion). But as the rest of the world tries to make sense of Putin’s words and actions, it’s perhaps valuable to try to see where he fits into Ludlow’s taxonomy if we want to predict what he will do next. Does Putin know that he’s lying? Is he intentionally lying, or is he simply indifferent to the truth? Are the grievances and callbacks to past border changes (and the breakup of the Soviet Union) actually relevant to the relationship between Russia and Ukraine today? What’s the point of showing Putin berating his cabinet members — not to mention the recurring photos of him sitting at comically large tables? It’s all bullshit, of course, but what does it tell us about what we should expect from Putin in the days, weeks, and months to come?
But there’s one more important question: How do we respond to the increasing ubiquity of bullshit in our society? Black provides a partial answer by quoting George Bernard Shaw, who had the audacity to ask politicians, “Do you really believe that?” When bullshitters spout nonsense at us, fact-checking isn’t enough — because many of them share an indifference to what is actually true that inoculates them (and many of their followers) to the truth. We must get beyond their words to expose their mental state: Do they actually believe and mean what they say, with full knowledge of the consequences of what they are proposing? For while bullshitting requires a deceptive intent, and we lie to ourselves about facts all the time, he argues that it’s impossible to lie to yourself about what you believe. “Either you know that you believe what you say, or else you don’t,” Black says. “And in either case, you can’t be mistaken.” He goes on to argue that perhaps a more effective strategy is to translate bullshit into clear and plain language — exposing the deception for what it is.
Ludlow takes a different tack, noting that not all bullshit is bad, and says that sometimes we need to “dumb out, party and bullshit” (and citing Notorious B.I.G. to make the point). He also notes that violating Grice’s maxim to “be orderly” can be good, because sometimes there is a hint of truth in bullshit and in unstructured moments it can lead to good ideas.
The Varieties of Bullshit (Peter Ludlow, 2022)
On Bullshit (Harry Frankfurt, 1988)
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
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