Illustration by Yael Bogen.
Opinion

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

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



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 Both have been superseded by a new form of discourse, which Frankfurt calls “bullshit.”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.

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. The media produces endless chatter, it produces bullshit in the form of opinions, forecasts, analysis, entertainment.

The media’s voracious appetite is not the only reason for bullshitting. Another driver is the cult of emotions and “personal inner truth” that has seized Western societies. “Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world,” writes Frankfurt, “the individual turns toward ... trying to provide honest representations of himself.”

But, because facts about ourselves are neither solid, nor resistant to skeptical dissolution, this turning to oneself is destined to failure. Frankfurt: “Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.” In other words, when truth moves into the realm of emotions, it becomes bullshit. “I feel a victim, therefore I am a victim” is a sentence found in endless cultural sites.

The cult of subjectivity makes people retreat from the search for truth, and even more worryingly, to affirm their inner self as truth. Bullshit has proliferated and affected so deeply our political institutions that we need to ask about the origins of this form of speech and knowledge.

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 a second suggesting that, if all truth is relative, then there is no reason to privilege one truth over another.

Postmodernism is the philosophical movement that presented itself as the formalization of the idea that there are many truths, and not just one, and that as a consequence the very concept of truth needed both debunking and democratization.

Richard Rorty astutely observed that postmodern theory is defined by the claim that, “We... [should] give up the correspondence theory of truth [the idea that we have a language to represent reality adequately], and start treating moral and scientific beliefs as tools for achieving greater human happiness, rather than as representations of the intrinsic nature of reality.” Other strands of postmodernism went further: Truth served power. Truth was male, white, European, colonialist, heteronormative.

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 (and others’) 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.

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (L), Stelios Varias

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.

Agnosis 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 whether climate change is happening or not. What they are interested in, is whether many people think that aspirin is good or bad, whether people think women are equal or not, and whether they think climate change is happening or not.

Marketing is a form of knowledge that does not seek hard facts, but only the opinions 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.

MANDEL NGAN / AFP

Agnosis and Santa Claus logic

Marketing uses what Jean Baudrillard called the “Santa Claus logic,“ which can be defined as follows: We do not believe in it, and yet it matters to us (like Santa Claus). This is a distinctly different position than that of the religious believer, for whom belief matters and who may believe that Santa Claus is real. But the Santa Claus logic believes and disbelieves at the same time. Children typically believe and disbelieve Santa Claus. I know Bibi is probably bulshitting me, but I don’t care because I like strong leaders and I want to believe him. I may know that Trump lives in lavish and glittery palaces, that he does not really care about the working classes, but it feels good to believe that he cares about me, that he will bring me presents and make my life easier. Santa Claus logic creates an agnosis, a culturally induced indifference to truth because we learn to attend to what we want to be true.

Theodor Adorno had coined a similar notion: Advertising, he says, teaches us not to believe in advertising and yet to act on it. We know the perfume will not make us more sexy, yet we cannot help but act as if it will. This is, by the way, different from the idea of ideology or false ideology, in which I authentically believe something false to be true (such as the idea that men, or whites, or Jews are superior to women, blacks, non-Jews).

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 is able to replace the knowledge of the inherited fortune, of the failed businessman who hires prostitutes and lives in glittery apartments.

Agnosis or ignoring bad news

The notion of post-truth was invented by Serbian-American playwright and journalist Steve Tesich. In a 1992 article he wrote for the American left-wing magazine The Nation, he sought to describe a post-Watergate syndrome, whereby all uncomfortable facts that were revealed by that political scandal (that is, Richard Nixon’s illegal attempt to spy on the Democratic Party and to cover that up) generated a new relationship of citizens to truth. According to Tesich: “In the wake of that triumph [that is, the triumph of democracy against the crookery of Nixon] something totally unforeseen happened. Either because the Watergate revelations were so wrenching and followed on the heels of the war in Vietnam, which was replete with crimes and revelations of its own, or because Nixon was so quickly pardoned, we began to shy away from the truth. We came to equate truth with bad news and we didn’t want bad news anymore, no matter how true or vital to our health as a nation. We looked to our government to protect us from the truth.”

This was written 27 year ago by the man who invented the notion of post-truth. We may quibble with Tesich (who died in 1996) about whether Watergate was indeed a watershed moment, whether it was the defining and dividing moment of American politics in relationship to truth, and even about whether Nixon was so quickly pardoned, but Tesich had a point: Politicians became increasingly evasive (remember Reagan’s “I don’t recall” comment, during the Iran-contra scandal in 1990, in which not only the president but all 14 indicted officials survived). Lies became increasingly unhurtful to those in power. Republicans hardly paid the real and steep price for lying. Much like the fact that Netanyahu did not pay the price for having been the chief inciter against Yitzhak Rabin. That Israelis elected Netanyahu after the murder of Rabin was a powerful case of “ignoring the bad news.”

National pride substituted for bad news. That was the case when Bush and Colin Powell talked about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to justify going to war there, and never really apologized when it became clear that those weapons didn’t exist (which would have meant resigning). The WMDs entered in the category of post-truth: They were not found, but they could have been found – they were plausible.

As Tesich argued further (and this was before the Iraq war), plausibility became a legitimate modality of knowledge, one that does not need facts, even makes facts up in order to satisfy a structure of plausibility. Haj Amin al-Husseini didn’t engineer the Holocaust, but he could have, and that is enough to be proffered in the public sphere. In replacing truth, plausibility became a weapon for avoiding accountability, to create and accuse enemies, to sow doubt about known and agreed-upon facts. That is post-truth.

Agnosis as the fear of knowing

AP

Agnosis, or ignoring bad news, has another aspect. In a society that is very much oriented or structured by knowledge that scares us, in which everything from cigarettes to hamburgers to lack of exercise can hasten our impending doom, we have developed a capacity to see through bad news without seeing it. For example, when I smoke a cigarette, I remove it from a package on which I can read the words “Smoking kills,” but those of us who smoke learn to see the bad news without absorbing it.

Theodor Adorno said about the culture of advertising that it promotes a form of looking at an advertisement, yet not believing in it. We learn to do this because bad news is, so to speak, the staple of the news. In the realm of media, news is bad news. In that sense, this kind of knowledge works in a way that is opposite to the manner in which a vaccine works. With a vaccine, exposure to a very small quantity of harmful antigen is enough to protect us from it. Here it is the reverse: A very large quantity of the truth overwhelms us, and makes us immune to it. There are so many threats and so much bad news that we become immune to them. I read “smoking kills” on the cigarette pack, and I know it is true, yet I continue to smoke, habituating myself to ignore a large amount of bad news. An infinity of consumer objects come to us with bad news attached to them, which we believe but ignore nonetheless. This is an attitude in which we learn to ignore what we know and to act in a way that is opposite. While this is in itself not new, it is certainly institutionalized in an information-saturated cultural sphere.

Agnosis 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 reponsible 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.

‘Thoughtlessness’

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 truth is, 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.”

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.”

Like Orwell joined the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Only someone who had a clear conception of truth could risk his life defending anti-fascist values. Holding a mushy view of truth is a luxury only democratic and well-run societies can have and which contemporary societies can no longer afford. 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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