On bullshit.

It occurs to me that the term “bullshit” has a very specific meaning when I use it, and it’s a meaning that’s surely not broadly understood. I suspect that many people see it as a mere expletive. I’m thinking of a very specific definition when I use the word. Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” was first published in 1986 and became an unexpected best seller in 2005. I read it at the time, and found valuable his definition of the term.

What I took away from this was my own definition of bullshit. In my view, in order to distinguish bullshit from a lie, a misrepresentation, a disagreement, etc., there are three elements that must be present:

  1. The assertion must be demonstrably false.
  2. The speaker must know that the assertion is false.
  3. The listener must know that the assertion is false.

(This definition is notably different than Frankfurt’s. In his view, bullshit is defined not by the statement, but by the speaker. Bullshit is a statement made without regard for the truth, a result of somebody who provides information without actually knowing the truth. (This is a problem common among politicians, who are routinely called upon to give answers on topics that they are not experts on. Few are willing to admit when they don’t know something, so most will simply give an answer anyway.) Whether the statement made by the bullshitter is true or false, in Frankfurt’s view, doesn’t matter — the important thing is that the speaker simply has no idea.)

When House Republicans claimed last year, and again this year, that providing video of their floor sessions would force the legislature to become full-time, that was not necessarily a lie or bullshit. It’s true that the Senate has provided live video of their sessions for years now and it’s had no apparent effect on the length of the General Assembly session. And it’s also true that they already stream video online, but only within the General Assembly’s network, so virtually no work and very little cost would be required to provide such video. But it was possible that House Republicans believed their own claims.

Now that House Republicans are running their own video blog, their position can now be seen clearly as bullshit. House Republicans’ belief that they know best which moments that the public should have access to — no need to trouble us peons with everything — does nothing to address their simultaneous claim that providing session video to the public would reduce decorum and lengthen sessions. So we can now see clearly that their assertion is false, that they must know that their assertion is false, and, of course, that we know that the assertion is false.

Thus House Republicans’ position on providing video of sessions can be known to be bullshit.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

6 replies on “On bullshit.”

  1. That’s an interesting definition you have, Waldo. Mine sits somewhere between the two, I think–it doesn’t necessarily have to be demonstrably false, but does demonstrate a casual disregard for truth, instead selecting for what’s convenient. I of course come up with the same conclusion as you do: video-recording subcommittee meanings is bad when that’s the convenient answer, except when it’s not convenient in which case it’s good.


  2. Actually, in Frankfurt’s definition, the important point is that the speaker doesn’t care whether his statements are true, not that he doesn’t know.

    I’m curious — how is your definition distinct from a lie? It seems to me that knowingly giving false information is the essence of lying, and I don’t see what difference it makes that the listener knows it’s false.

  3. Jim,

    While I can’t speak for Waldo, let me try to answer that one. My assumption is that Waldo’s definition for a lie is the following:

    1. The assertion must be demonstrably false.
    2. The speaker must know that the assertion is false.
    3. The listener must not know that the assertion is false.

    If we drop the third requirement and simply leave the first two, then bullshit simply becomes a category of lying, which very well may be the case. However, if Waldo seeks to make bullshit and lying exclusive categories, he requires this third condition.

    With that said, the difference in this case between lying and bullshit is that lying relies upon a lack of knowledge on the part of the listener, while bullshit relies upon social etiquette and a lack of incentive (you’ll expend more resources proving the bullshit to be what it is than you’ll gain back) not to “call someone out” on the bullshit they are saying.

    For example, this is why when McCain was recently asked if he thought condoms prevented the spread of AIDS, he responded that he was stumped. Both the questioner as well as the speaker knew that it did, but there would have been negative political consequences for saying that. The questioner could have called him out for saying in the past that it did, but it would have accomplished very little for either side. Thus, the statement was left unquestioned at the time.

  4. Hmm, okay, I can see that being a workable definition. I’ve found Frankfurt’s definition to be quite useful, and providing an alternate explanation for why “calling out” the bullshit is ineffective, which is that it requires some effort to prove the statement false, but no effort at all to come up with more bullshit if the speaker doesn’t care whether it’s true or not, so it’s a losing battle.

    I think both kinds exist, and I would definitely agree with your putting McCain’s statement into Waldo’s category.

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