Living in an age of BS

If you already figure that we live in an age of BS, good news – there is technical support for your view. Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of moral philosophy at Princeton University, wrote a biting little book, published in 2005, entitled On Bullsh**. I was given this book by a friend, and I decided to give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised. It is not a joke book. It is classical academic discourse on a cultural phenomenon. I admit, though, that there is a certain childish glee in reading a serious analysis of a word that I am not supposed to use.

The opening line states the gist of Dr. Frankfurt’s position: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullsh**.” Okay, now follow along. Frankfurt has a serious point to make.

First, he differentiates BS from lying. When someone is lying, he knows the truth and is deliberately trying to mislead his listener (or reader, etc.). In contrast, when someone is BSing, he doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not. He is launching rockets of balderdash for the joy of seeing them light up the sky. Or his motive may be more serious. He may be using BS to persuade something to think or behave a certain way. In either case, it is the intended effect that drives the use of BS, and the essence of BS is not knowing whether what one says is true or not.

Frankfurt also points out that in a bull session, everyone understands that what is said may bear little resemblance to the actual truth. However, they don’t care. Such shared irresponsibility is the nature of a bull session.

It should be pointed out, though, that a BSer might actually be getting things right. If he does, it is more accidental than intended.

One of the things that irritates me so much about most political discourse in America is that it consists of heaping, steaming piles of BS. Every weekend politicians appear on television, making promises about their policies and accusations of opposing parties that seem to be intended to produce an effect rather than driven by a commitment to actual truthtelling. It seems to me that most politicians have become convinced that BS is the ticket to success, and the public seems to have bought into the deal. “Sure, we’ll listen to you. We know you are BSing. Go ahead. We’ll vote for you anyway, because we like the other guy less than you.”

Beyond politics, Frankfurt points out that the prevailing viewpoint of our culture is “various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.” The result is a culture that is committed to being non-committal about truth claims. We end up saying all sorts of things, all the while being convinced that we cannot know whether they are true or not. In other words, we become full of BS.

I do believe that every human being’s grasp of truth is subject to his or her limited perspective. We “know in part” (1 Cor 13:9). However, knowing in part is different from believing that no one knows. This is what separates appropriate humility from BS. Humility is recognizing our limitations and stating, “to the best of our abilities, this is the way we know things to be.” BS is allowing our limitations to drive us to complete skepticism and stating that “this is the way things are” even though we believe no one has any way of knowing.


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