A Brief History of Bullshit: Why We Have Learned to Ignore Truth – by Eva Illouz | Haaretz

Lies no longer draw backlash or punishment. But truth remains the strongest weapon against the world of alternative facts propagated by Trump and Netanyahu

  Eva Illouz | Haaretz

If lying has become a widespread practice in public life, it is because it has gone unpunished, and more disturbingly, because it often seems to bear ripe and colorful fruits. It is enough for Benjamin Netanyahu to say that Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini engineered the Holocaust, or that Benny Gantz is a security risk to Israel to suddenly create doubt in the mind of the citizen, a doubt which in turn changes reality.

This is a unique historical moment, one that seems to reverse the most fundamental tenets of the Enlightenment, about the moral and political centrality of truth. Hence the question posed here:                

What happened to Western culture for people to have become oblivious or indifferent to the notion of truth? After all, if liars get away so easily with their lies, it must be because we no longer value truth so dearly.

In his 2005 book – based on a paper from 1986 – “On Bullshit”, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt defined his eponymous subject as a new form of knowledge. For Frankfurt, the liar and the truth-teller belong to the same moral and epistemic world. A liar, he claimed, cares very much about the truth; in that sense a liar is in the same position as someone who wants to tell the truth, only that a liar is careful about hiding the truth he knows. Both have been superseded by a new form of discourse, which Frankfurt calls “bullshit”.

What defines bullshit is the fact that it is a form of speech in which the speaker no longer cares either about the truth, or about the appearance of telling the truth, or about lying. Bullshit is beyond the usual worries of truth, such as historicity, facts, methods, etc.

A liar lies because he cares about the truth not being known, whereas a bullshitter requires no conviction at all. A bullshitter does not care about the truth, because he knows that whatever he says, true or not, will make an impression on the listener, and thus either increase his importance or undermine an enemy.

When Netanyahu said that the grand mufti of Jerusalem thought up the Holocaust or that Gantz’s phone was hacked by Iran, he was not lying – Netanyahu knows well the facts: He was simply bullshitting, he knows it is not true and he knows everybody knows it is not true, but he says something that will unsettle the ordinary citizen and sow doubt. He produces a form of speech that does not care about the truth nor about the appearances of truth.

The media produces endless chatter, it produces bullshit in the form of opinions, forecasts, analysis, entertainment. One of the main sources of bullshit, for Harry Frankfurt, lies in the extraordinary multiplication of media outlets: Whether on radio, television or the Internet, the point is to say something, whatever the content.

All Truths are Relative

In her essay “The Crisis in Culture”, Hannah Arendt argues that there is something coercive about truth. Claims such as “the earth revolves around the sun,” or “gravity tends to pull objects toward the earth” can be established in very different ways, but they have in common being above and beyond agreement, opinion, discussion or even consent. Truth, then, has a despotic character.

This view of truth as something that imposes itself on us has been deeply challenged by a double impulse: ONE that claims that all truths are relative to the values and viewpoint of the person proffering those truths; and TWO, suggesting that if all truth is relative, then there is no reason to privilege one truth over another.

Viewing truth as power led to a spectacular inversion: If during the Enlightenment, truth served as a weapon against superstition and political authoritarianism, it was now the onslaught on truth that became moral. Any group or individual had a “right” to its own truth, and this position was the only truly moral one. French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote in “Cool Memories” (1980): “Truth is what we need to get rid of as soon as possible, and give away to someone else like a disease; it is the sole way of healing from it. Whoever keeps the truth in his hands, is lost.”

Putting aside the moral dubiousness of passing your own disease to someone else, and the bizarre medical logic suggesting that you can be cured of a disease simply by passing it around, we still have to reckon with the fact that Baudrillard’s call has been heard far and wide:

A large cohort of philosophers and social scientists have viewed truth with the same disdain as Baudrillard: As a primitive belief to be outgrown by civilized men and women.

This view became all the more virulent when it moved from the realm of epistemology to the realm of politics and morality. As Alan Bloom wrote in 1987, in “The Closing of the American Mind”, challenging another’s values became anathema to American students, as one could never be sure of knowing or possessing the truth. To be truly democratic and tolerant became synonymous with liberating oneself from the coerciveness of truth.

If truth was coercive and obscene – obscene because it was coercive – what was the point of identifying liars? If truth could be owned privately rather than be a common property, truth became a matter of opinion, in the realms of both fact and morality. In fact, Donald Trump’s alternative facts brought the logic of postmodernism to its natural conclusion:

If all truth is contingent on values, he could legitimately claim that the Mall was full on the day of his inauguration; that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and that Mexican immigrants rape American women. After all, these claims directly reflect his values.

Postmodernism affected universities, entered popular discourse and became widespread among broad segments of the population, undermining the legitimacy of the pursuit of truth. But there were other forces too that were acting to reinforce the claim that truth no longer mattered.

Ignorance Through Knowledge

These cultural forces converge toward the notion of agnosis, the Greek word for “ignorance”. I was inspired to think about this notion through the work of Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science and technology at Stanford University, and the linguist Iain Boal, who jointly coined the term “agnotology”, to refer to the study of the culturally induced processes of ignorance.

The first manifestation of agnosis is this one: Ignorance induced through a mass of knowledge. Experts and the language of expertise produce an enormous amount of data and knowledge whose purpose is to produce truth “effects” – that is, claims that have the appearance of truth but which, we have learned, come with an expiry date. Think of data about health with which we are bombarded daily.

This type of knowledge – like most forms of scientific knowledge – is short-lived and often self-contradictory – one day we are told red wine is good for us, the next day that it’s unhealthy; and the same with eggs, fat and coffee – which one day are deemed harmful, the next day beneficial.

The point is that we have come to expect this sort of knowledge to be short-lived, contested, approximate and to contradict itself. That is, the more scientific knowledge develops, the more it becomes – bizarrely and ironically – fuzzy and unreliable, at least to the public. Think also of the “replicability crisis” that plagues the experimental sciences. Scientists have not been able to replicate 70 percent of existing psychology experiments, some of them very well-known. In this context, we get used to the idea that data and knowledge does not necessarily constitute the truth, that we can have data without a firm coercive truth.

Remember the wealth of data about weapons of mass destruction that George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Colin Powell, used extensively to convince the American public and the world that a military intervention in Iraq was warranted. What was interesting in that episode was that the attempt to seek legitimacy for the military operation was not pursued through censorship or secrecy, but rather by overwhelming us, the public, with knowledge, which turned out to be false. Its falsity did not provoke the outrage it should have provoked because, after all, we have become used to knowledge having an expiry date.

I don’t know if Steve Tesich read Hannah Arendt, he does not quote her, but the man who invented the notion of post-truth – and received the Oscar in 1979 for best original screenplay for the movie “Breaking Away” – wrote:

“We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”

Indeed, the most efficient way to instill totalitarian rule is not to oppose one truth to another but to contest the very idea of truth. In a 1943 essay, George Orwell wrote:

“Nazi theory […] specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists… If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.”

All forms of tyrannies have always counted on our negligence, apathy or foolishness to trample on truth. Truth remains the necessary weapon to fight tyrants, liars and bullshitters.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On September 16, 2019 at 1:52 am

    Kamptan wrote:

    Liars are Thieves….

    We have all told “porkies” – lil white lies.
    The motive for lying is complex.
    Am no shrink but here are some reasons for lying …

    1. Lie to avoid losing (cheats)
    2. Lie to win (drug cheats)
    3. Lie to rob (fake crime)
    4. Lie compulsively (trump)
    5. Lie just for sake of lying (Netanyahu)

    The list is endless
    One can also lie to not upset another.
    (in some cases, acceptable/justified)
    Some may also lie by not responding.
    Tight upper lip! – British lie.

    In my experiences
    If suspect is lying best to question
    them on reason why? Eyeball to eyeball.
    Junkies (compulsive) liars
    will seldom remain focused …easily

    BS******* also – trumpites!

    As we mature/age we are more likely
    to be truthful in our exchanges/interactions …
    Honesty best Policy brigade!

  • Clyde Duncan  On September 16, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    A Brief History of Bullshit: Why We’ve Learned to Ignore Truth

    TRUTH remains the strongest weapon against the world of alternative facts propagated by Trump and Netanyahu

    Eva Illouz | Haaretz

    Agnosis [the Greek word for “ignorance”] as Image-Making

    Agnosis has a second characteristic, which derives from the grip that marketing now exerts on a large array of domains.

    As French philosopher Michel Serres put it, marketers are not interested in knowing if aspirin is good or bad for you; they are not interested in knowing whether women are equal to men or not; or even knowing whether climate change is happening or not.

    What they are interested in knowing is whether many people believe that aspirin is good or bad; whether people believe that women are equal or not; and whether they believe that climate change is happening or not.

    Marketing is a form of knowledge that does not seek hard facts, but only the opinions that people have of the world, because these opinions or beliefs are in turn entry points into the consumers’ mind and self.

    Marketing represents an institutionalization and a privileging of common-sense opinion against TRUTH – “mint makes teeth whiter”, as toothpaste advertisements suggest. Marketing institutionalizes the idea that what matters is what consumers want and believe, even if these beliefs and wants are based on false premises.

    Political Marketing Works in the Same Way.

    If people want a strong leader, political candidates will align themselves around the finding by marketing research. Candidates thus increasingly think of themselves as packaged products that must be sold to consumers through the consumers’ own false beliefs.

    Through marketers, the bullshit thought of ordinary people becomes institutionalized, it gets recycled in consumer goods and politicians, and it becomes therefore an objective fact.

    Agnosis and the Santa Claus Logic

    Malcom Gladwell drives the point somewhat further home:

    One of the main purposes of marketing people is to create confusion between content and form.

    When people undertake an assessment of something they might buy in a supermarket or department store, without realizing it, they transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself.

    To put it another way, as marketing theorists know well, most of us don’t make a distinction – on an unconscious level – between the package and the product. The product is the package and the product combined.

    This then suggests that marketing aims to deliberately blur the distinction between something we may call the outward presentation of the object-political persona and what it actually contains.

    Trump’s red baseball cap comes to stand for him – it is his package, his seal of authenticity. The impression generated by the red cap supersedes and replaces the knowledge of the inherited fortune, of the failed businessman who hires prostitutes and lives in glittery apartments.

    Agnosis [the Greek word for “ignorance”] as Paranoia

    A final type of agnosis is to be found in the conspiracy theories so widespread in our society. To quote the Czech political theorist Ivan Krastev, writing in 2017:

    “According to opinion polls, between half and three-quarters of individuals in various Middle Eastern countries doubt that the planes hijacked on September 11, 2001, were piloted by Arabs; four out of ten Russians think that Americans faked the moon landings; and half of Americans think their government is probably hiding the truth about who was behind the September 11 attacks.”

    In France, a significant percentage of high-school students of North African origin were convinced that the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher market attacks of 2015 were perpetrated by Americans and Israelis, in order to increase hatred of Muslims.

    Tea Party Republicans, right-wingers, left-wingers, minorities who feel attacked by the state – for some members of these groups, for all their differences, hatred of the state and of elite groups have become the mode through which to analyze reality:

    Financial elites/the Jews/the U.S. and Israel/ the federal government – some or all of these entities are responsible for an impending major disaster. For conspiracy theorists, Nietzsche’s claim that, “The opposite of the truth is not a lie, but a conviction,” holds especially true.

    Conspiracy theory is a powerful form of conviction because it gives one the feeling that one possesses an insider’s privileged form of knowledge, that one sees through the machinery and the machinations of the media and the state, that one is smarter than the big institutions. It is the intellectual sophistication of the small.

    Conspiracy theories are rampant in today’s societies, and though they give the illusion of privileged knowledge, they rely heavily on a foundation of ignorance.


    Truth has become anathema in chic intellectual circles. When we remember that some biological theories asserted the truth of male superiority or of the white race, we can understand suspicion of the very concept of truth.

    But there is a difference between affirming that there is a single truth to be discovered and the claim that truth matters, whatever it is.

    Truth is not only content – the earth revolves around the sun – but also a set of beliefs and procedures we agree on to represent, discover and predict something about the world.

    The methods for representing truth can change, but the idea that there is something to find out, and that some ways are better than others for finding out what is truth, must remain unchanged.

    The content of truth may and does change, but the very idea that truth matters and that there are procedures to agree on which truth matters more should not change.

    Agreeing on this principle is a way of coexisting in a world that is a common world, which we can share with others.

    In her book “On Revolution” Hannah Arendt was worried about the inability of people to think and to distinguish fact from fiction. This is a condition which Arendt labeled “thoughtlessness”.

    Thoughtlessness was the incapacity to think for oneself. I would go one step further, and suggest that thoughtlessness is actively induced by some key dimensions of our culture. Marketing, advertising, public relations, postmodernism – all promote a generalized form of bullshit and agnosis.

    The ability to think is key for democracy. For Arendt, an unthinking population is instrumental to the success of totalitarian rule. Only the quest for truth obliges one to think, to argue, to justify oneself, to weigh evidence, to doubt, to revise one’s judgment.

    But if truth as a cultural ideal is abandoned, why bother to think? Instead of thinking about truth, we think about what feels good.

    “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule,” wrote Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” “is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction […] and the distinction between true and false […] no longer exist.”

    Indeed, the most efficient way to instill totalitarian rule is not to oppose one truth to another but to contest the very idea of truth.

    All forms of tyrannies have always counted on our negligence, apathy or foolishness to trample on truth. Truth remains the necessary weapon to fight tyrants, liars and bullshitters.

  • Clyde Duncan  On September 19, 2019 at 10:26 am

    The First Casualty of the US Culture War is TRUTH

    Gerard Baker | The Times UK

    With UK politics increasingly dominated by the courtroom, the treatment of Brett Kavanaugh shows the dangers ahead

    There’s an old trick in the less reputable corners of journalism. Publish a smear story on the flimsiest of evidence. Then, when it’s exposed as bunk, issue a correction or even a retraction. Everyone remembers the smear. Few will ever see the revised version. Mission accomplished. What did Stanley Baldwin call it? Power without responsibility.

    Thus, it was that Brett Kavanaugh was back in the headlines in America this week

    Mr Kavanaugh was Donald Trump’s nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy a year ago. A jurist with solid conservative credentials, his confirmation looked set fair when, out of the blue, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee conducting the nomination hearings unearthed an allegation from a woman who claimed that, 35 years previously, when they were teenagers, Mr Kavanaugh had groped her.

    The accusation, never corroborated, opened a sewer of allegations in the Democrat-favouring press about Mr Kavanaugh’s supposed youthful misdemeanours. None was corroborated and after a highly charged Senate hearing, the judge was confirmed on a party-line vote.

    For the past year, a number of journalists have been upturning every stone in Mr Kavanaugh’s life. Their low productivity is unexpected testimony to the probity of Mr Kavanaugh. Until last weekend, that is, when The New York Times published an article based on a book on the justice by two of its reporters.

    It contained a new and disturbing claim: That while he was an undergraduate at Yale, Mr Kavanaugh had participated in an abusive act on a female student at a party. The man who made the allegation is an avowed ideological and political opponent of Mr Kavanaugh’s, a partisan Democrat and veteran of judicial battles on behalf of the party. But, still, the allegation was explosive.

    The minute it appeared — almost as though they knew it was coming! — leading Democrats jumped on the story, and in quick succession called for Mr Kavanaugh’s impeachment. – Supreme Court positions are jobs for life and a justice can only be removed by formal impeachment proceedings in Congress.

    A few hours after the story appeared, a vigilant reporter for another news organisation discovered that the reporters’ own book on which the article was based included a passage omitted from the article. In it, the authors stated:

    “The female student declined to be interviewed and friends say she does not recall the episode.”

    In other words, a crucial, exculpatory detail, uncovered by the reporters themselves, had been omitted. A while later, The New York Times appended an editor’s note to the story and made a small emendation.

    In this latest sordid American tale of sex, lies and journalism, there are large and consequential lessons.

    One is about the media. It is further evidence that in the Trump era, for much of the media the last vestiges of objective and honest reporting have gone the way of truth and facts.

    Journalism is now essentially a missionary activity. The mission is everything and everything is subordinate to it. If your mission is to bring down Trump, you’ll make the reporting fit the objective.

    A prominent Democrat told me this week that even she can’t look at most of what is on the news these days because it is so partisan. A leading Democrat!

    The irony is that this is good news for President Trump. One suspects that part of his plan all along was to so rouse the media against him that they would undermine their thinning reputation for objectivity in the process. When all the news that’s fit to print is incredible to half the country then the news has lost its power.

    The larger political message in all this is even more important and its consequences harder to read. No one ever thought that Mr Kavanaugh would be impeached on the basis of this story. But that’s not the point. As the eager Democratic candidates for president demonstrated, this is all about exciting voter enthusiasm.

    It’s worth remembering — especially as Britain’s own Supreme Court moves to centre stage in the political drama this week — that these days in America most of the big political issues are decided by the courts. The appointment of Supreme Court justices becomes the most important tool by which social, economic and cultural change is made. That may be where Britain is now heading.

    Republicans under Mr Trump have been able to cement a conservative majority, just, on the court. This has led to anguished claims from Democrats that America is about to become a Handmaid’s Tale of a country in which women are reduced to chattels and child-rearers.

    All this is important to agitate voters to turn out next year. Elections are decided less by persuading the undecided to choose a candidate and more by getting your supporters to turn out in larger numbers than your opponents’.

    The more that Democrats can use lurid media stories to paint the country as being in the grip of authoritarian misogynistic rapists, the more likely that their voters will come out. Of course, the issue animates Republicans too, to defend their fragile gains.

    The 2016 election was, in the telling of the losers, determined in large part by the clever manipulation of fake news. Democrats are doing their best to ensure that 2020 will be no different.

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