Sunday, July 1, 2018
Bullshitters, Liars, and Donald Trump
Did you know a serious philosopher writes about bullshit?
The distinguished moral philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, an emeritus professor at Princeton, did just that in 2005.
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.
Frankfurt set out to describe it. Importantly, he distinguishes it from lying. And, never a disappointment in this one regard, Donald Trump provides excellent examples of both.
First, some history.
Like so many words, the use of the word bull is of uncertain origin. Some trace it to Obadiah Bull, an Irish lawyer in London during the reign of Henry VII. By the 20th century, bull seems to have been an euphemistic shortening of bullshit, meaning pretentious and deceitful.
Second, Frankfurt notes, bullshit is ubiquitous. Since Trump became president, bullshit’s ubiquity has surpassed all previous expectations. No one really knows the effect of constant bullshit on us.
Third, here’s the definition of bullshit:
It likely evolved from efforts to define humbug, thought to be a pretentious bit of misrepresentation falling short of lying. Politicians proclaiming the importance of religious faith represent a good example of bullshit. Most importantly, bullshit is produced without any concern for the truth.
Bullshitters not only misrepresent the truth.
They are indifferent to it.
What’s the definition of lying?
In contrast to bullshitters, liars concern themselves with the truth—but in a perverse way. They lead us away from it. Liars care about the truth. But they are anxious to have their lies negate it.
In other words, liars want to get the facts right, if only to invert them into lies.
According to Frankfurt, the liar and the truth-teller play on opposing sides of the game of truth.
Liars evade telling the truth; truth tellers focus on it.
Unlike liars or truth-tellers, bullshitters are not guided by their beliefs about truth. And that, sadly, makes bullshitting particularly dangerous. Frankfurt adds:
Bullshitting is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.
Already an unwitting vehicle for explaining psychoanalytic concepts to the lay public, Trump provides excellent examples the lying versus bullshitting distinction.
A careful analysis of his many untruths reveals almost entirely bullshitting as evident in these examples:
Crime in Germany is way up.
The Philadelphia Eagles players stayed in the locker room for the playing of the National Anthem.
Nancy Pelosi came out in favor of MS-13.
These alleged facts are pure bullshit. They demonstrate, consistent with Frankfurt’s definition, a total disregard for the truth.
Bullshitting is, in essence, a form of propaganda.
You have to search much harder, but here are two examples of Trump lying:
North Korea has agreed to denuclearization.
(In fact, according to yesterday’s Washington Post, Kim Jung Un agreed to no such thing, and US intelligence agencies believe he has actually increased production of nuclear weapons since the recent summit).
The Post Offices loses a fortune on Amazon.
(It actually makes millions of dollars from Amazon but, here, as usual, differentiating lying from bullshitting proves difficult when analyzing Donald Trump’s proclamations. It would only be a lie if he knew the USPO lost millions. Perhaps he did. He should. Any idiot would know that).
Trump runs the US like Fox runs the news, an ongoing propaganda machine, a sales job, and verbal diarrhea of bullshitting.
Does Trump ever tell the truth?
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP