The importance of being earnest
By Sara Mayeux
How many times have you heard a friend or acquaintance congratulate herself on her ability to bullshit? “I’ve only written ten pages of my fifteen-page paper,” a Princeton student might not implausibly say sometime this week or next, “but I think I can b.s. the rest.”
One wonders if Harry G. Frankfurt, a Princeton professor emeritus of philosophy, had such undergraduate utterances in mind when he set out twenty years ago, while teaching at Yale, to define the concept of “bullshit”. The result was a brief essay published in a 1986 issue of the journal Raritan and then in Frankfurt’s 1988 collection The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays.
In February, Princeton University Press re-released the essay as a stand-alone book, On Bullshit—67 six-by-four-inch pages, with wide margins and large type. Attracting attention as much for the awkward position in which it placed copy editors—most newspapers which reviewed or covered the book used some euphemism or abbreviation for the title—as for its content, the work has become something of a phenomenon. In April it reached No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list and it has now been reprinted six times, for a total of 150,000 copies in circulation. For an academic press, those numbers are huge. The 75-year-old Frankfurt has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Today show with Matt Lauer to discuss his thesis, which has also received critical attention in Slate and The New Republic.
It is hard to know how seriously to take On Bullshit. It draws upon the ideas of Wittgenstein and Augustine; yet its frequent references to its titular subject cannot but lend it a seriocomic tone. (“[W]e 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. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit […].”) Some reviewers wondered if the book wasn’t in fact a prime example of its subject—an elaborate marketing stunt with little substance. Roger Kimball opined in the Wall Street Journal that its title alone “bear[s] witness to an academic trend, one that furthers the coarsening of cultural life.” Frankfurt himself agreed with Jon Stewart, in an interview on The Daily Show, that part of the book’s appeal lay in the simple shock value of an Ivy League professor using a profane word. In another interview, he admitted that upon rereading his essay, “I was sort of disappointed. […] It was a fairly superficial and incomplete treatment of the subject.”
Short and quick though it may be, On Bullshit does have a thought-provoking thesis, and it’s a sobering one. Not merely a curiosity, On Bullshit has hit a cultural nerve with its central proposition: a bullshitter is more dangerous than a liar. Frankfurt argues that someone can only lie if he believes that what he is saying is not true. Bullshit may or may not be true—the bullshitter doesn’t care. He is motivated only by strategic concerns: what do I need to say to get what I want? “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction,” Frankfurt concludes. “A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. […] For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false.”
In fairness, Frankfurt did not actually write On Bullshit with anything so trivial as undergraduate papers in mind, at least not primarily. “I’m a philosopher, not just by profession but by nature,” he explained to Matt Lauer, “and I’ve always been concerned about the importance of truth and respect of the truth and love of the truth. And dismayed by the prevalence of deformities of the truth and contempt for the truth and lack of respect for it.”
Politics, of course, and the frenzied media coverage thereof, is a prime arena for bullshit in contemporary American culture. Frankfurt does not include real-life examples of bully-pulpit bullshit in his essay, but he does address political rhetoric more generally. In the following passage, he considers Max Black’s definition of humbug (closely related, for Frankfurt, to bullshit):
Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about ‘our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.’ This is surely humbug. As Black’s account suggests, the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to birng about in his audience beliefs that he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about he role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. […] Rather, […] the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on.
The description calls to mind first George W. Bush; of course it would easily fit just about any other politician. Yet the Bush administration does seem to have taken bullshit to a new extreme, with its casual lack of concern as to whether or not its claims can be proven. As Timothy Noah put it in his Slate review of On Bullshit: “Richard Nixon knew he was bombing Cambodia. Does George W. Bush have a clue that his Social Security arithmetic fails to add up? How can he know if he doesn’t care?”
In an interview with Editor & Publisher, Frankfurt himself offered the administration’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to justify “preemptive” war as one contemporary example of political bullshit. Those claims may or may not have been true, but the administration was not particularly concerned one way or the other. “My view is that we were given an incomplete account of what was motivating the government, and what we were told diverted our attention from asking questions about the real motivation,” Frankfurt explained. “The whole presentation of the reasons for going to war was disingenuous.”
Given the prevalence of bullshit in contemporary political discourse, it could be argued that it’s not such a big deal: most of the citizenry knows how to detect it. Surely no one is so gullible as to take politicians at their word. Bullshitting is a game, and we all know the rules; so what’s the problem?
But are we really so in control of the game? For Frankfurt, a certain amount of bullshit is probably unavoidable, but too much of it threatens to erode cultural standards of truth: that is, if we become too inured to bullshit, we may forget that anything other than bullshit is possible. Jonathan Lear, reviewing On Bullshit in The New Republic, agreed but argued that Frankfurt did not go far enough. In today’s society, Lear suggests, we are all implicated in “a complacent and rundown theatricality,” not just the bullshitters themselves: “We all know that what we are reading is spin; we all know that the person quoted is not really committed to the truth of what he is saying; and yet we are all somehow willing to go along with what we instantly recognize to be ersatz news. This is the problem with bullshit: it is contagious. It invites us all to grow more detached from the real, to give up caring about what is true and what is false.”
Although there is an obvious difference in scale between the average ENG 205 or POL 210 essay and a president’s solemn justifications for invading another country, they are both implicated in today’s culture of bullshit. Writing an essay whose truth value you don’t care about one way or the other, just so you’ll pass a course, may not seem to have any concrete ethical implications when the only person who will ever read it is your overworked preceptor.
But I wonder: how easy is it to separate our belief that our own bullshit is okay from our general complacency about our president’s bullshit—and, more generally, about the bullshit which surrounds us? Turn on the radio and you will hear bullshit lyrics set to bullshit music; open a newspaper and you will read bullshit ad copy set next to bullshit journalism. If nothing else, surely we must guard against becoming so collectively jaded that we no longer know—or care—that every political utterance, bullshit or otherwise, made by our elected leaders does have concrete consequences. Over 1,500 American soldiers have died in this most recent Iraqi war—over 1,400 of those since Bush’s bullshit “Mission Accomplished” speech—and over 20,000 Iraqi civilians.
This is not an argument for or against the war in Iraq: it is an argument against bullshit discussions of that war or any other, or of the human experience itself. I don’t know if Princeton has equipped us for a more genuine discussion, however, or if any contemporary American university could. To be sure, the university holds truth in high regard. But where truth is too difficult, the incentive structure of the university, with its deadlines and grades, encourages bullshit as the next best alternative. When you don’t have the time or inclination to write a paper you believe in, you’ve still got to turn something in if you expect to pass the course. Rather than congratulate ourselves on our Ivy League-tested skill at getting away with bullshit, we might at least ask ourselves: at what cost?
All I wanna do is party and bullshit
By Kean Tonetti
Funny thing: currently, the best-selling book at the U-Store is called On Bullshit. Henry Frankfurt’s book probably attained this ranking because the Princeton Writing Center recently purchased copies for its tutors as a “funny” end-of-the-semester gift. (I assume this was meant to be a joke…an instruction manual is generally more useful when dispensed at the beginning of the year.) However, it could just be that a lot of people have bullshit on their minds; Dean’s Date is fast approaching, after all. A girl standing behind me in line confirmed this suspicion as I was checking out, saying, “My mom just bought that for me! She said that I rely on it too heavily.”
God knows that’s why I bought the book…reading this sixty-seven page guide is certainly a better use of my time in preparation for papers and exams than actually tackling the reading that I have pushed aside all semester. On the other hand, what if I read it and realize that I’ve been living a life of bullshit? I mean, I know how easily the word integrated itself into my vocabulary freshman year, when my friends and I engaged in the same dialogues, again and again. In the recurring dialogue we discussed “bullshitting” our way through papers, and then we high-fived and made plans to pre-game.
And back in ye olde dayes of pre-grade deflationne, it usually worked. And if not, getting a grade that was less-than-acceptable-by-perfectionist-standards was totally fine, because after all, it was bullshit. After a few semesters, I even found a correlation between my grades and the varying degrees of thickness with which I laid *it* on: on those occasions when we did work, it paid off, and everyone was happy.
Today, the campus is no longer a safe place for bullshit. I say this like it’s a bad thing…because it is. Somewhere along the way, since those first empowering high fives, I started buying my own bullshit—that, or I started truly investing effort in my work. I can no longer tell which is the case, but either way, just as I boarded the train to scholastic honesty, responsibility, and self-investment, my professors gave me the message that I was, in fact, deluding myself. Needless to say, it has not been an affirming experience.
I responded to this semi-devastation the only way I knew how: by spending approximately an entire semester wasted. As such, I achieved several goals, like returning to my freshman-year level of low expectations. Also, I found myself much more content knowing that I wasn’t wasting time making up good stuff. After all, professors’ hands are tied: now they can’t even reward well-structured, articulate, junior year-level bullshit as opposed to the crap that a freshman throws together before pre-gaming.
This argument, while honest, surely seems to be rapidly falling into the hand of Dean Malkiel and the B-Czars. Truth be told, there is probably not an undergrad at this school capable of producing something that is simultaneously eloquent and original enough to really merit an A. I would be paralyzed if I approached every paper with the attitude that I had to make an original point—a point that would impress a grad student who was grading it while studying for generals, reading theorists’ seminal works. Let alone the professors who probably knew these theorists. My point is: where would we be without our bullshit?
Thankfully, graders take pity on us and discriminate between the creative and the regurgitated bullshit. However, now that the grade spectrum is enforcedly narrow, thoughtful bullshitting is often met with the same disinterest as drunken bullshitting. (I can attest to this fact from experience gained in my Wasted Semester.) This is all because of what I call the meta-bullshit factor: I get the impression that papers are now being read with even less care and attention than is invested in writing them. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect that someone with a Ph.D. would actually struggle through most of the drivel that an undergrad would try to pass off in seriousness or in desperation. However, since graders have been empowered by the battle cry of ending grade inflation, explanations and critiques have dropped off along with my grades.
Since grade deflation has taken away the need to justify a B, instructors’ comments read like Cliffs Notes versions of their former incarnations. Who needs honest criticism when reference to bell-curve grading is made? And in this day and age, who can argue with “Good work! B”? An attempt to discuss grades is often met with a huffy “well it is a good grade” or possibly “the times are A-changin’. Hah, get it? Office hours are over.” Stronger ties between grade deflation and substance abuse surely exist, but the fact that I can now get the same lack of praise or even constructive criticism if I write a paper while downing longnecks makes me wonder why I wasted all that time in the library.
I am sure that these grading-type people congratulate themselves for their honesty in the crusade to end the reign of B.S. in the hallowed halls of learning. However, it just makes me think of my Texan father’s oft-used critique of a person as having “no bullshit,” which he equates with being insufferable. A certain level of pretense keeps relationships civil, and the same extends to academia. When scribbled commentary used to give me the feeling that somebody out there might be paying attention, I would invest some pride and effort in my bullshit. Now that even this pretense is gone, what’s my motivation?
Dean’s Date is just a few days away, and I think that professors, preceptors, and students alike would probably benefit from glancing through On Bullshit as a reminder of the beauty of truly creative fiction. But who am I kidding…I probably won’t even end up reading the whole thing, but rather having it as a motivational book to sit on top of my desk and glare at me every time I try to make another cute juxtaposition with a semi-colon. Or use words like “structuralized” and “politicization.” Or whip out the old trusty verbs of nuance: suggest, imply, hint. See, I don’t even need to read this book to know what it says, and I can write an entire article about it. Screw you, Dean’s Date…I’m sleeping till two tomorrow.