Wednesday, January 14, 2009



Philosopher Harry Frankfurt had a minor best seller a couple of years ago with his book "On Bullshit".

Here's a bit from the publisher's blurb:

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Now Frankfurt is a philosopher, not a psychologist, so he approaches this subject from an ethical or moral point of view. This is fine for those wanting to express moral outrage, but does nothing useful for those who want to see lies stamped out.

He seems to imply that liars have a concern for the truth, in that they know what it is, but ignore it while BS-ers are indifferent to it. I think that this still implies that the BS-ers know what the truth is. We condemn them when the continue to repeat things which have been shown to be false. We can't believe that someone could continue to maintain a falsehood in the face of evidence unless they were being deceitful.

I think there is something else at work here, a need for self justification for ones actions and beliefs. Notice that when a person of the cloth loses his faith it is a major psychological trauma as had been related many times in works of autobiography. When one has based their entire worldview on a certain set of assumptions then one is left adrift when these foundations are removed.

Right now we are seeing a spate of conservative justifications for failed policies - economic, social and international. People are getting increasingly upset the way these defenses continually twist actual historical events. But if your self image depends upon justifying your actions, then remembering history the way you wish it had been becomes a self-defense mechanism.

A good example, from history so we won't have to deal with current personalities, is that of Harry Truman and the A bomb. When he entered office he knew nothing of the advanced military planning that had been going on. Roosevelt thought he was a lightweight and kept him out of the loop. He got all his education from a group of insiders who had a vested interested in seeing the A bomb program completed and used militarily. So they fed him slanted information. The most outrageous was the claim, which he repeated throughout his later life, that Hiroshima was a "military" target. This was untrue and was further confirmed by later inspections once the US had occupied Japan. Truman was given later intelligence data. In fact the data was so damaging to the US story, that it, and the pictures from the scene, are still mostly classified.

What could Truman do with this new knowledge? Admit he had been misled, or misled himself and admit that he had OK'ed the largest war crime in the history of the world? So Nagasaki and Hiroshima remained military targets in his mind until the end.

Now we see the outgoing administration, and their enablers and cronies, lying about the basis for the two wars, the successes of prior social programs (the New Deal and the Great Society), the current state of the economy and public opinion. Lies or defensive mechanisms?

It makes a difference. You cannot debate a BS-er, they operate in a non-rational universe. The ends always justify the means. Whatever is needed to win your point at the moment trumps everything else. This is not to say that one should let them get away with distorting reality. There are always the impressionable listening on the sidelines who need to be reminded of the truth. But it does alter the way such counter efforts should be undertaken. Going onto a talking head show with a BS-er just gives them an opportunity to repeat their story and implicitly validates their position as being plausible. In addition there are no venues where the host will call out the guest for gross misrepresentation. This would be seen as the host being partisan and removing their credibility as a "neutral" observer.

Unfortunately the only ones willing to call BS on such people are on Comedy Central. A poor commentary on the state of our press.

There is a similar dynamic going on over the "debate" about evolution. Serious biologists will no longer debate creationists because just the act of appearing in the same venue enhances the creationists with their followers and the easily swayed bystanders.

I don't think those who relish face time on TV will listen to me and boycott such venues, but they might consider if they are helping or hurting the cause of truth by doing so at least. The business press and the weekly news magazines represent business interests so can never allow challenges to the capitalist, free-market, ideology of those who pay the bills. One would never expect the Marxists "Daily Worker" to support the bosses, so why any surprise over the distortions of the "Financial Times" or the "Economist". If you knew what they were peddling was false would you work there?

Keep up the good fight, but don't ever expect the BS-ers to yield.
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