Drum on Bullshit

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Drum on Bullshit

Kevin Drum discusses discusses Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" (which I discussed here and here) and concludes thusly
This, I think, is a key characteristic of bullshit: not just that the bullshitter knows he's bullshitting, but that the bullshittee also knows it. He may know it for sure, or he may just suspect it deep in his heart, but part of the essence of bullshit is that both sides implicitly recognize that the statement in question is, in fact, bullshit. In this way it acts like a compact between spewer and receiver, a shared secret that brings them closer together. Thus the piquancy of bullshit, as well as its popularity.
Frankly, I think this is wrong. The fact of the matter is that really only those who are spewing the bullshit and those who are relatively well informed recognize the bullshit. The speaker is, in actuality, counting on this and attempting to bullshit those who are less informed. As Frankfurt notes
For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.


Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.
Bullshitters rely mainly on a belief that they can appear to know certain things, believe certain things or possess certain qualities despite not actually knowing, believing or possessing them because their audience is not in possession of the facts. Bullshitters seek to exploit the ignorance of their audience in order to accomplish their goals, assuming that their bullshit will go unrecognized.

Bullshit is not some "shared secret" between a speaker and his or her audience - it is a conscious attempt by the speaker to exploit the ignorance of the audience in order to get that audience to believe things about the speaker and/or the world, whether true or not, for the sole purpose of furthering the speaker's agenda.

It is for this reason that Frankfurt declares that "bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

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