Sunday, May 24, 2009

On "On Bullshit"

Today I went to the bookstore to try to keep my mind from summer atrophy. I picked up Harry Frankfurt’s little (and I mean that literally—fits in my palm) book On Bullshit. For anyone who’s seen “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” the title conjures up pictures of a beach house on Long Island and a game of cards with a bunch of old misers. Unfortunately, the sunshine state isn’t delivering today, so not only am I lacking an ice cold glass of lemonade in my right hand, but there is no warm sunshine or cool breeze outside to make me feel like I am sitting there next to Maconnahay when he calls out “buuuullshit, mama!” in that Texan drawl.
So back to Frankfurt: he’s separating out the bullshit from lies and he points out that “we may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire” (50). I think he’s right. Why is that? He leaves it up to the reader to solve the little puzzle.
Here’s my guess. Frankfurt describes the bullshitter as someone who isn’t concerned with the “truth-value” of his statements but rather makes them with a view to his own ends. The street vendor in Lima who tries to sell me a fake Lacoste hat is not concerned with whether or not the hat is authentically Lacoste—he just wants my money. He does not chiefly intend to deceive me. So I’m not enraged with the vendor because I don’t perceive him as a threat to my understanding of reality. The liar may con me into believing something false; the bullshitter is up to something less serious. And if I were shrewd enough, perhaps I could still find the truth somewhere in the bullshit (while the truth is usually much harder to find in a lie, since a lie must hide the truth).
I think that we fundamentally care about knowing the truth. No one wants to live her life mistaken about reality. And while bullshit tends to steer us away from reality, it always leaves the interpretation open to us. The Cheerios ad suggests that the cereal reduces cholesterol, it does not promise it can lower mine—that would be my assumption. But a prescription drug that guarantees to lower cholesterol and fails to do so is deceiving. In the first case, my false belief is partially due to the bullshit, but I am also responsible for my own inference. In the second, my false belief is entirely due to the lie. I don’t want false beliefs; so while bullshit in some instances can lead a careless observer to a false belief, lies are much more offensive because they are intended to lead even the attentive observer to a false belief. And I think what we value more than anything in our beliefs is that they are true.

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