FEBRUARY 12, 2018
IT IS A TRUTH, widely believed if not universally acknowledged, that current American politics has an honesty problem. The epidemic of untruth is real and disturbing, but the standard diagnoses are suspect. We aren’t witnessing an unprecedented outbreak of lying. Another term is more appropriate: bullshit.
Most people use the word imprecisely, as a way of showing they haven’t been taken in. Political evaluations ought to aim for greater exactness. A penetrating essay by the distinguished philosopher Harry Frankfurt, “On Bullshit” (published in 1986 and reprinted in 2005 as a book, indeed a surprising best seller), identifies a clear distinction between the liar and the bullshitter. The liar utters some sentences with the intent of persuading his dupes to believe something he recognizes as false. Bullshitters, by contrast, have no particular interest in truth or in what the audience comes to believe. Jaws waggle, tongues flap, and sounds emerge. The point of the performance is to induce emotion in an audience — to provoke sympathy or disgust or veneration.
A lot of bullshit is narcissistic bullshit. The speaker calls a tax cut a gift to the middle classes or declares himself to be the victim of a witch hunt. The announcement is directed toward a particular audience, whose members are supposed to feel gratitude toward their benefactor, regarding him with ever more warmth. Or they are expected to respond sympathetically, to view the speaker as harried — as they too are victimized — by wicked enemies. Some narcissistic bullshit works through appeasement. The audience is told what it prefers to hear. And some of it works by jabbing a finger in the eye of those whom the intended recipients distrust or deride — fancy lawyers, professors at elite universities, Californian tree-huggers. Bashing the baddies can be as good as offering a caress. “Obama wiretapped me!” provokes an eruption of rage toward the Evil One, and a corresponding upsurge of warmth toward the persecuted victim. Those feelings may even cause a chorus of admiration for the speaker’s honesty: “He has the guts to tell it like it is.”
The bullshitter, however, is unconcerned with telling it like it is — or, for that matter, telling it like it isn’t. His indifference to matters of truth and falsehood exposes itself in his tolerance for contradictions. Apparently channeling Walt Whitman, the bullshitter puffs himself up; he is large, he contains multitudes. One day the jaw waggles one way — “It’s a great bill!” Another day the tongue flaps in a different direction — “It’s mean!” No need to bedevil the mind with “a foolish consistency,” as Emerson put it. The emotional reaction’s the thing. Look to the poll numbers, especially among the faithful.
Indifference to truth necessarily breeds indifference to evidence. Why bother with the tedious business of resolving hard questions if the point of speech and decision-making is to burnish the bullshitter’s self-image? Uncovering the consequences of health care proposals or tax reform or climate policies is hard work. It might require listening to the voices of people who have dedicated their lives to solving parts of complex puzzles. If the experts agree, they might deliver unpleasant news, findings whose announcements would interfere with the aims of narcissistic bullshit. If they are at odds with one another, then perhaps there would be pressure to sort through data — and that would hold things up. The bullshit variety show must go on! Better not to read, not to learn, not to listen, but let the performance continue apace. So, without consulting experts on climate, on health, on taxation, on foreign policy, the bullshitter-in-chief endangers an international agreement on climate change, endorses bills undermining the health and well-being of average American citizens, threatens serious attempts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the securing of peace. Meanwhile, his minions on Capitol Hill sometimes feed him the bullshit he broadcasts, and sometimes (with more or less embarrassment) echo his pronouncements in a lower register.
American politics is awash in dangerous bullshit. Lack of concern for evidence is consequential. It is a moral flaw. So, in the words of Émile Zola: “I accuse.” I accuse Donald Trump and the Republican Party of deep moral corruption, expressed in the casual irresponsibility of their “policy-making.” (To call it “policy-making” without quotes would be more bullshit.)
In 1877, the British mathematician and philosopher W. K. Clifford published an essay on “The Ethics of Belief.” In it, he argued that it is always wrong — morally wrong — to believe something on the basis of insufficient evidence. He began with a striking example, imagining a shipowner who convinces himself, without adequate evidence, of the seaworthiness of a passenger vessel, intended for a transoceanic voyage. In the first version of the case, the ship sinks and hundreds of people drown. An alternative scenario has the vessel arriving safely. Clifford’s verdict is that, in both instances, a moral wrong has occurred. In believing beyond the evidence, the shipowner becomes culpably responsible for the deaths of the passengers and crew (first version) or for putting their lives at risk (the alternative).
Clifford generalizes from cases like these, concluding that every leap beyond the evidence is a moral error. His readers have often seen him as overgeneralizing. In a response to Clifford, probably the most influential essay ever written by an American philosopher, William James defended the “will to believe.” He pointed out, correctly, that there are occasions when believing beyond the evidence either brings about the truth of what is believed or makes it possible to acquire the evidence to clinch the case. A mountain climber may be guilty of wishful thinking in believing that she can leap a crevasse — but her confidence could be instrumental in bringing her safely across. Each member of a group of scientists, working on a difficult problem, may believe that his or her approach offers the best way to tackle it — and that valuable diversity of belief, not all of it evidentially warranted, can be crucial to finding the solution. Yet James’s response doesn’t call into question Clifford’s verdict on his motivating cases. Indeed, “The Will to Believe” supplies a framework for judging when, in evidentiary terms, it’s morally appropriate to launch a ship — or a policy. Where the costs of being wrong are severe, beliefs must be held to a higher standard. The potential deaths of the seafarers impose a moral demand on the shipowner. He should have checked.
Bullshitters care nothing for truth or falsehood, and hence are not scrupulous about assembling evidence. Sometimes recognition of bullshit can come with a lighthearted laugh (who cares — or who ought to care — how many people attended the last presidential inauguration?). Bullshit about minor matters doesn’t matter. On the other hand, bullshit about large policy issues ought to be the target of moral outrage. When millions of people might lose their health care coverage, when tax reform might impose new burdens on those who are already struggling, when withdrawing from an agreement might encourage nuclear proliferation or might threaten the human future on our planet, it is profoundly wrong not to investigate. Even if the actual consequences, if probed, would not turn out to be so dire, thinking the issue through is morally required. For the worrying potential effects are “live” possibilities (in James’s phrase), not to be dismissed without hearings, without expert testimony, without exchange of ideas, and without the most serious exercise of thought that policymakers can muster. In a transient moment of Republican responsibility, John McCain recognized the point. Rushing blindly to judgment when mistakes might well produce enormous suffering is a grave moral error.
Why are we so blind to this moral corruption? Even Senator McCain stopped short of castigating his colleagues with the vehemence their actions deserved. Perhaps in part because, in a culture of bullshit, we have become inured to the daily dumpings. Perhaps because, as Frankfurt originally suggested, each individual instance of bullshit seems not quite as bad as an outright lie. That may well be correct. Deliberately deceiving someone about a topic seems even worse than uttering the same words as bullshit. Yet bullshit may have more tendency to spread than lying does. As the inveterate liar approaches his next, even larger, whopper, maybe there’s a little voice from within asking, “Have you no shame?” Bullshit, by contrast, seems to be able to spread shamelessly, oozing from small subjects to larger ones, ad maiorem bullshitteri gloriam. Have we become cynical about our new technologies, seeing the internet as a vast arena in which the masters of bullshit can compete with one another? Is there a new “virtue,” that of being able to bullshit your way out of any situation?
There’s more to it than that, I think. So far, this essay has only looked at basic bullshit, performances about factual matters (some of them, like climate change and nuclear proliferation, admittedly very large). Bullshit thrives, however, because of bullshit about bullshit. We might call it “the higher bullshit.”
The credo of the higher bullshit consists of two doctrines: everyone does it; and politics rightly cuts ethical corners. Both need to be exposed for the bullshit they are.
To be sure, the aisle of the Senate doesn’t divide a vast dumping ground on one side from a virginal zone on the other. Democrats aren’t immune to bullshit. Nor do mainstream media differ from Fox News and Breitbart through their inviolate purity. So “everyone does it” expresses a half-truth. Where it falls short is in its silence about the relative rates of bullshit. Republican discourse today exudes bullshit in great clumps and clods and streams. The peccadilloes of the political opposition, by contrast, are more modest, more chaste, less brazen. Bullshit only arrives in small pellets. The discussions of health care, those that preceded the passage of the Affordable Care Act and those that gushed from the (failed) attempts to undo Obamacare underscore the difference in bullshit density.
Some people, possibly oversensitive, are inclined to think that the misdeeds of others don’t excuse their own. Perhaps they recall scriptural passages about motes and beams, injunctions not to chastise offenders for their relatively minor failings until they have come to amend their own more flagrant derelictions. Those with such tender consciences will require something more than the first article of the higher bullshit if they are to exonerate themselves. The idea of politics as overriding moral niceties seems well suited to their needs.
Self-styled political realists think of themselves as having learned that moral scruples can sometimes interfere with attaining important social goals. Legislative achievements often involve compromise, horse-trading, and dealing, producing a morally imperfect but overall valuable bill (witness the Affordable Care Act). Historians and other scholars can be left to determine whether this lesson stems from Machiavelli (or from Kissinger). The crucial question concerns its application to the bullshit variety show. Can politicians be excused for suspending a president’s constitutional power of appointing Supreme Court justices, or for rushing to judgment on health care and tax reform, for casually abandoning agreements to preserve a habitable planet or to limit nuclear proliferation, for deciding to deport large groups of people and splitting up families — and, in all instances, blithely disregarding evidence contrary to their antecedently favored views? Is the disdain for finding out the truth on these issues justified because of some greater end promoted by bullshit, and by bullshit alone?
You don’t have to probe far to uncover the preferred answers to these questions. If the Republican Party included political realists willing to scrutinize their recent actions, they would surely point to the dangers of suffering electoral losses. Without exercises in bullshit designed to appease “the base” (is the double meaning significant?) or to reward the donors (Mephistophelean figures to whom they have sold their souls), political control would be lost. Power would be conceded to the Democrats (the “dems,” as Fox News styles them). That outcome would be a Terrible Thing. It would signal the Inevitable Decline of the United States. Avoiding it is so important that any measures are justified. Even bullshit.
But a defense of this stripe is itself bullshit. Nobody who pays serious attention to the records of progressive parties in various countries (particularly in Western Europe) since World War II should quake at the prospect of a Democratic administration. The “dems” are hardly fire-breathing radicals, threatening huge and destructive reforms. Modest, even timorous, they belie the images of the right-wing scare stories. Bullshitting, ignoring the evidence and passing bills whose exact content, let alone their likely effects, are terra incognita, might reasonably be defended if the opposition party planned some vast constitutional shift — to abolish elections, say, and to declare a permanent dictatorship. The political realism defense resembles the bargain Robert Bolt’s Thomas More recognizes in the conduct of his one-time assistant Richard Rich: the temptation to sell your soul to gain the entire world might be understood — “But for Wales, Richard, for Wales?”
Of course, the vision of terrifying Democrats, eager to undo the United States of America’s greatness, is itself the product of bullshit. Here the mainstream media are sometimes complicit. The more progressive figures in the Democratic Party are compared to the British Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn — who is himself seen (for example by The New York Times) as a “hard left” figure, possibly with Stalinist tendencies. Bullshit. Any serious study of Corbyn’s policies and the history of British politics would reveal his goal of reverting to approaches introduced by the postwar Attlee government, and accepted by subsequent administrations, Labour and Conservative. Until a truly radical figure — Margaret Thatcher — came along.
Political realism turns out to be a poisoned chalice. For the realist defense is much more plausible as an excuse for Democratic bullshit. Given the scale at which Republicans are willing to operate, carelessly proceeding without any thorough investigations, the dangers they represent are glaringly obvious. If you think climate change and nuclear proliferation pose threats to the human future, you might well excuse cutting a few moral corners. Here Machiavelli’s supposed advice does seem to apply. Averting the loss of the world would justify a bit of bullshit.
But I think we can manage without joining in. Although we are drowning in bullshit, cleaning up the mess doesn’t require Herculean labor. Clifford’s moral point is not hard to appreciate. Once things are called by their proper names, once bullshit is recognized for what it is, citizens should know how to react to it. The vanity of the bullshitter-in-chief should be punctured, again and again, by mocking the performances that don’t matter — as when he celebrates the “massive crowds” at his inauguration. When bullshit is consequential, when it takes the form Clifford castigated, the reaction should be different. Try to reawaken that small voice from within. Ask the bullshitter, repeatedly, relentlessly, the same question: “Have you no shame?” Newspapers, television programs, and websites should call attention, constantly, to what is being done, to irresponsible decision-making, far beyond that of the shipowner. Indices of shameful bullshitting should constantly be published. Tallies should be kept. All those inspired by Senator McCain’s perceptive moment should write and call their representatives. They should ask a question very like the one postwar German children put to their parents: “Where were you when the facts were ignored?”
And, I suggest, a slogan for the 2018 elections: “Stop dangerous bullshit.”
Most recently, Philip Kitcher has co-authored with Evelyn Fox Keller The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts (W. W. Norton). He is also the author of Science in a Democratic Society (Prometheus Books).
Featured image by Gage Skidmore.