Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bullshit in Media and Politics

I've started grading students' written responses to Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit."

Frankfurt writes that "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit." Later on, he declines to take a stand on the essentially empirical question of whether there is more now than ever:
"Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased."

To my mind, this all but asserts that there is more now, and I would have thought that there is more right now than 20 years ago when Frankfurt originally wrote the essay. Isn't there more TV but less content? And don't media technologies allow us and tempt us to publicize our opinions whether we are experts or not? (Frankfurt says that "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.")

But a student raised the insightful objection that there may very well be less bullshit now than 50 or 500 years ago, precisely because we can all be experts or can find an expert. There is more information--even more knowledge--easily available than anyone would have imagined a generation ago. And the standards of evidence are widely recognized. Superstition, myth, and ignorance allow bullshit to proliferate. The internet counters this, though, in holding varied sources of information (wikipedia alongside library databases), in encouraging multiple reports of experience (product reviews), and in helping people connect (MoveOn or consumer groups).

Students also quickly expressed the view that the current presidential administration relies on Bullshit. Frankfurt writes that
"telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertaions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person's normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost." And this is why "bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."
As one student paper points out, one can be caught out in a lie. A liar can be confronted with evidence. But bullshit, being empty and made-up, is elusive and always leaves the bullshitter a way out. The Bushies have been careful enough to remain ignorant whenever possible, to filter evidence, to isolate themselves from expertise and knowledge, to make many leading but vague claims, and so to indulge in the refuge of Bullshit.

Jim Johnson has a label devoted to such political BS.

Addendum: Students suggest films to accompany Frankfurt's essay, in particular Wag the Dog and Thank Your For Smoking.

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