Is it really a lie when the person making an outrageous statement doesn’t actually care if it’s the truth or not?
It’s such a common situation that statements somewhere outside of lies and truth have gotten not only their own name, which I’ll abbreviate “BS,” but they are spawning a line of academic thought and papers. It’s a big part of our culture and our politics, but what can we do about it?
First of all, I’ve decided to avoid the clinical term. This may seem cowardly, but I’ve worked hard to raise blogging above the gutter – let me use the terms “BS” and “(CowPuckey)” to describe what I’m talking about.
The term reached public consciousness when retired Philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt published his essay, “On (CowPucky)” in 2005. It is an exposition on the corrosive effect of people saying pretty much whatever they want to, regardless of whether it’s true or not. The BSer “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. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” according to Frankfurt.
(CowPuckey) lies at the heart of so much of our culture it’s getting harder to tease out. The financial crisis was, at the heart of it, about representations of risk that were made not as actual lies but with a complete disregard for the idea that there was a true risk out there in some form. Entire careers in infotainment have been made out of calling President Obama a “Socialist” who wants to bring down the US. We even went to war with Iraq for reasons that obviously had no relationship to truth whatsoever, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
How did it get this bad?
The answer lies with the nature of (CowPuckey) itself. There are several distinct forms of this kind of talk, ranging from hyperbole to make a joke to a full-out con or swindle. While it may seem strange to study this academically, it’s worth looking at the nature of it because at the heart of it we’re looking at a fundamental disconnect between the speakers and reality, a lack of connection between highly driven individuals and their social responsibility. The lack of authority of truth is the lack of authority of anything, the ultimate triumph of the individual.
I like to consider myself a bit of an expert on (CowPuckey) for the simple reason that I grew up in Florida. Our founding fathers were, pretty much to the man, pirates and con artists – and it doesn’t take long to realize that at least the pirates were honest about what they were doing. But for that, eventually you have to have some sympathy for the con artists in the sense that if people are dumb enough to fall for the con it seems that they were going to be taken by someone, somewhere at some point no matter what. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is – and in politics, if it sounds too dumb to be true, it probably is as well.
That doesn’t stop people from believing what they want, of course. A good con, at the heart of it, is about the Bigger Better Deal (BBD) being used to make someone’s imagination work against their common sense. A world that has a deep lust for the Bigger and Better is always going to be waiting for someone with the right (CowPuckey) to come along.
Sticking with simple examples in politics, we can see this everywhere. Former FEMA director Michael Brown recently said that Obama is using the oil spill to stop offshore drilling, despite the simple and obvious fact that Obama has been a strong supporter of offshore drilling. Why would someone say this (CowPuckey)? Because it suited him at the moment and it helps to sell a political agenda. Clearly, this particular con man will say just about anything.
But it’s far deeper than that. What’s important here is that the man got on CNN saying these things, which is really shocking. It’s impossible to respond to (CowPuckey) without giving it some kind of credence, a heft that it simply does not deserve at all. That makes political debate nearly impossible, compromise unimaginable, and any kind of real progress hopeless. And this is just one tiny example of what’s presented.
What can we do about the (CowPuckey) that has taken over our politics, our economics, and just about every aspect of our culture? We have to call it for what it is, and leave it at that. That means that we don’t engage in any “debate” on terms set up by con men and BSers. I’m going to spend this week examining what I think we can do instead.
There are a lot of rich links in this article tying what I’m saying here to what I’ve said in the past. If you want more depth to this introduction and overview, please follow them. Thanks!