Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Dangerous Admiration of BS

Why is BS’ing admired, almost to the point of being “cuddly and warm,” as philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it, whereas lying is considered morally repugnant?

Frankfurt examined BS in his 2005 monograph On Bullshit (BS) and distinguished it from lying. The liar, Frankfurt argued, is focused on facts so he or she may state the opposite, but the BS’er is an entertainer or artist who uses words and sophistical arguments to manipulate others. Individual statements of the BS’er may be true, but their truth or falsity are irrelevant. The “show” is what counts. A sales rep, thus, puts pressure on a prospect by saying, “buy now, because I already have two firm offers.” The rep may or may not have two other offers; those particular words were chosen because they provide the most persuasive language.

Frankfurt’s discussion seems to imply that the creative and imaginative skills of the artist are what people admire in BS’ers and lead many to make comments about BS’ers to the effect “He’s good” or “She’s clever.” Such comments may be made about anyone. Politicians, of course, are often consummately admired spinmeisters, as are many lawyers and sales and advertising practitioners. Some admiration may stem from the challenge a BS’er must overcome, such as a sales person confronted with the objections of a particularly difficult prospect. A well-crafted story, not entirely based on fact, to convince the prospect to buy can produce the above accolades.

Expectation of truth is doubtless the reason we are offended by the liar, but why not the same for the BS’er? After all, the overall impression made by the BS’er is false, even though individual statements made by such a person may be true. BS, as I suggested in a conference paper, is a species of lying, the two behaviors occupying opposite ends of a continuum.

In a post-publication interview, Frankfurt named marketing (of course) and, perhaps surprisingly, democracy as causes of the preponderance of BS in our culture today. Marketing, because salesmanship and advertising are falsely assumed to mean lying in order to separate consumers from their hard-earned dollars. And democracy, because in such a system we are obligated to have an opinion about everything; since we cannot know everything, says Frankfurt, our opinions amount to BS.*

One consequence of the connection between democracy and BS, Frankfurt continued, is that the highly educated, because they have the linguistic skills with which to express their opinions and the arrogance to neglect facts in the process, are more prone to BS than their lesser educated counterparts. Does this “democratic skill” cause admiration of others who exhibit the same?

Rationalization abounds to justify BS, such as “everyone does it,” “everyone knows it’s done this way,” and “that’s how business (or politics) is conducted.” Not “everyone” does know it, however, and if everyone did know it, how would that justify departures from the truth? Storytelling belongs in the art of fiction, not in business, politics, or daily conversation. Justifying fabrication in negotiation and salesmanship is precisely what gives capitalism a bad name.

The danger in admiring BS, and not carefully distinguishing it from the creative fiction of a true artist, is that habits of mind become established and human relationships end up being built out of little more than BS. Perception of the truth becomes nearly impossible, because every statement is for show, not a description of facts. Politics has become almost entirely a BS show, with honest intention seemingly nonexistent.

Worst of all, parents can encourage this habit in children at an early age. Smiling approval of a less-than truthful statement can communicate a “you’re clever” message to a child. For example, a boy who wants to get his way makes something up that will please his mother. The mother plays along, knowing fully that the gambit is less than genuine. A pattern of behavior has just been sanctioned by the mother.

Commitment to facts and truth, when such encouragement is continued throughout childhood and adolescence, goes out the window. Of course, parents who exhibit the same behavior become their children’s models. The BS habit becomes ingrained in the child’s subconscious and he or she may not even be aware that anything is wrong. “My parents do it. Everyone around me does it. Politicians do it. It must be right.”

From this beginning in the home, we derive a culture of BS.


* The fundamental cause is altruism, specifically the premise that self-interested behavior, which is required in our daily lives, is opposed to character and morality.)

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