Posts Tagged ‘Bullshit’

Of Blood and Bullshit

January 14, 2021

Of Blood and Bullshit

            I am particularly interested by the fact that the Capitol Hill insurrectionists imagine themselves to be patriots.  One rioter was allegedly heard sobbing, “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”  Never mind that BLM never stormed the Capitol, that when rioters did attempt to storm government buildings they were met with far more force than the Capitol Hill insurrectionists faced, that BLM or Antifa never posed an existential threat to the nation, sought to overturn the normal functioning of the nation, or planned to seize and execute government officials, as the white supremacist rebels did.  It is a strange riot, a curious rebellion that, without a trace of irony, expresses outrage that its use of force is met with force.  They think they’re the heroes, that they’re the only patriots, that they are saving America. They expected the police to join them, the American people to either greet them as liberators or to slink away cowed, and Donald Trump to march up to the Capitol and reveal how their storming the enemy citadel would now insure his continued benevolent and completely successful reign for at least another four years.  Why?

            As Harry Frankfurt describes in his 1982 essay On Bullshit, there are lies, truth, and then this other sort of verbal action that is neither.  A truth-speaker says what the speaker believes to be true.   A liar finds the truth inconvenient, and instead speaks what the liar believes to be false.  And then there’s the bullshitter.  The bullshitter doesn’t care and often does not even know what is true.  Bullshit is disconnected from the entire true/false dichotomy.  The bullshitter is engaged with some other sort of activity.  Maybe it’s to impress or amuse (the “fish that got away” stories).  Maybe it’s advertising (“cats ask for it by name”).  Maybe it’s to win election (“My opponent is a socialist like they have in Venezuela who will destroy this country”), or to puff up one’s own ego or motivate one’s voters (“The only way I could lose this election is if it rigged”).  Whether the statement is true may not matter at all to the speaker; what matters is the reaction of the receiver.  The bullshitter seeks to manipulate rather than inform. 

            When everyone is sort of in on the joke, it doesn’t matter and, in fact, the BS might even be beneficial.  Imagine a coworker or friend who was always serious, who never exaggerated or speculated or dreamt; that would be pretty boring.  But if the hearer or reader mistakes BS for actual factual claims, then that receiver is deceived.

            Example:  “We’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!”  When DT said that, everyone knew it wasn’t going to happen.  Many of his supporters on TV and elsewhere actually mocked “liberals” for treating it as a factual promise.  They said, “Liberals take Trump literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously——but not literally.”  Everyone knew and at least tacitly admitted that this was bullshit, but his supporters felt it was an honest expression of their desires and values.  But later, the line between bullshit and lying became blurred, as more and more people believed it was promise, a true statement of intentions with a realistic chance of fulfillment, when in fact it was never going to happen.           

            The “fraud” claims seem to be people believing the bullshit.  It was never impossible for Trump to lose a free and fair election.  As the COVID-19 response (largely another exercise in bullshit, or in DT;s terms “cheerleading” for the nation and “being positive” rather than being providing facts and warnings) faltered, losing became more likely.  But his followers took it as a statement of fact; he can’t lose, so if he does then someone cheated.

            As to DT himself, his “power of positive thinking” approach is that if he says it and convinces himself, it will happen.  So he inevitably believes his own bullshit.  He says what will please his audience (pure bullshit, since he neither knows nor cares whether what he says is true when he is saying it).  Then, since he said it, he is convinced that if he doubles-down, it will happen, whether “it” is a business making money for his investors, a loan being repaid, or a disease disappearing as if by a miracle.  He even argued in court, when suing Forbes for allegedly understating his wealth, that he is worth as much or as little as he feels on any given day; if he feels like he’s worth 10 billion he is, but if later he feels like he’s worth only 1 billion then now he’s only worth that.  So when he’s talking to banks about getting a loan and he feels like he’s worth 10 billion, he’s not lying; but if he’s talking to the IRS and feels like he’s about to go broke, that’s not fraud either.  Whatever he says, lo, it is so.

            At this point, what was probably somewhat self-aware bullshit has become full-blown self-deception.  Donald Trump long ago took Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy to its illogical conclusion, that if he told himself something and kept positive then the world would conform to his wishes.  As he told others he couldn’t lose, he was telling himself that as well.  As the flatterers told him he couldn’t lose, he believed them; as the true believers sought to motivate themselves and others with an upbeat message, he believed them; and soon his world was echoing that message.  As to his followers, the collection of QAnon cultists, white supremacists and other far-right ideologues that swarmed into the Capitol, all the evidence and their public statements show that they too believe the bullshit.  They are not tethered to the rules of evidence or logic that restrict so many of us, but allow their minds to run free across fantastic battlefields, trampling the bodies of their enemies.  They are the Powerful, Righteous and Knowing, while those who spent their lives learning and serving are the Weak, sheeple who follow “experts” and “recognized authorities” and “science.”   But they are not sheeple; they are too smart to be deceived by people with years of research and years of public service holding them back.  Instead, they are bold and clever enough —- to believe absolutely everything they are told by The Strong Man, The Big Man, Donald Trump, whose many failures in business are never his fault, whose many divergences from reality only reveal his hidden knowledge and his subtle strategy, and whose very excesses and boorishness show that he is One Of Us even though he has lived his entire life literally isolated in a golden tower and has repeatedly stated his “racehorse theory” that he and his family are genetically superior to everyone except other authoritarian billionaires. 

That is why the putsch failed, this time.  As Harry Frankfurt said in On Truth, a society needs truth; not necessarily Eternal Truth, but practical, pragmatic truths, facts about reality and realistic plans given the limitations of reality.  You just can’t do anything unless you know what’s real and what’s reasonably plausible, what needs to be done and what you can do.  The Capitol Hill insurrection was a case of thousands of people believing the bullshit and acting on it.  The factual claims are nonsense; they’ve been refuted in over sixty court cases.  This election literally has been litigated and relitigated dozens of times, and the result is always the same.  At some point, any reasonable person has to accept reality.  But people who believe the bullshit have chosen to reject the rules of evidence and reason that they would apply to any other part of their lives.  The positive spin of Candidate Trump, engaging in a little harmless, standard trumpery that “we’re going to win this election,” metastasized into something more dangerous; from a little harmless bullshit to a major shitstorm.  Then, the bullshit that somehow storming the Capitol would “save democracy” by handing Trump the victory led them to a stupid and dangerous course of action.  There never was a realistic plan; there were just fantasies of revenge and victory.  The terrorists who attempted to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan have since argued that they were never really serious; it was all just bullshit, guys being guys and talking big among themselves about how they’d like to “get” that authority they hated.  The Capitol Hill thugs were, in some cases, apparently doing the same thing:  bullshitting among themselves, then showing up for a rally to feel good, then following the crowd into the building, but with no realistic plan as to how this was all supposed to work or how it would accomplish anything good.  In fact, investigative reports state that they just assumed that at some point Donald Trump would stride onto the scene and tell them what to do next, set wrongs to right and win the day; while instead he was simply sitting in the White House watching on television, enjoying the chaos and the adulation of himself without any solid plan to give any orders beyond blocking law enforcement from getting any reinforcements from the Pentagon.  So once Pence, Congress and the physical Electoral College ballots escaped, the insurrectionists had nothing to do but wander around, loot and vandalize, post selfies and boast on social media, then leave.  Their delusional state is fully displayed in the fact that even after every member of Congress escaped and thus there was no way Joe Biden’s victory would not be certified, they still thought they’d won, that they were the heroes, and that the only future problems they might face were where they would display their Medal of Freedom.

And because they believed the bullshit handed them by Trump, Cruz, Giuliani, Hawley, Gaetz and other opportunistic politicians looking to gain popularity, people died, people were seriously injured, tax money that could have been used to defend the nation or fight the pandemic will be spent on cleaning up the mess, and many, many people who think of themselves as patriots are facing the real possibility of lengthy prison terms. 

The insurrection of January 6, 2021 is the natural culmination of a political party drowning in bullshit, incapable of engaging with reality in any meaningful way, incapable of solving real problems but well capable of creating them, only solving bullshit problems.  For three years the Bullshitter-in-Chief, DJ Trump, built walls to stop nonexistent caravans, subsidized farmers hurt by his trade war sparked by his misunderstanding of trade deficits, sabotaged the nation’s most reliable alliances through his incapacity to recognize a good deal when he got one while selling out to enemies because he can’t recognize a con, avoided prosecution only because he was President and then thought that meant he wasn’t a criminal who would land in jail the second he was no longer President so he continued adding to his future legal troubles, and finally got himself impeached for a petty shakedown of an allied nation and was again only saved by rank partisanship—-which his bullshit-addled brain turned into a pronouncement of innocence, leading him to repeat all his past mistakes.  He demands a favor in exchange for doing his job, then says it’s not a “quid pro quo” because he said “no quid pro quo;” I want a favor for a favor but don’t call it a “quid pro quo” and then it isn’t one.  That sort of evasion of clear meaning and clear logic is the hallmark of bullshit.  For three years, a reality TV star who’s production crew largely says was playing a part they created has confused his television role with real life, and further confused the selfishness of a family business conning marks with public service to better a nation, and bullshitted his way through. 

But as they say, “money talks; bullshit walks.”  Or as the pragmatic philosopher William James said, truth is what has “cash value.”  Truth is what works, what gets things done.  What works in the long run is what is true in the practical sense.  To update and expand on James a bit, bullshit may work in the short run, but ultimately it fails.  It can’t solve problems; it can only distract from them.  Bullshit, after all, isn’t even engaged with reality; it is oblivious to truth and thus oblivious to the real problems.  When COVID-19 hit, this political party could only respond one way:  bullshitting.  They covered it up, obfuscated, tried to build a wall which was as useless as the other wall they’d built, issued contradictory directions to states and other regional authorities and then told them they were on their own so they could hide behind the confusion they’d caused, all the while lining their own pockets by investing in stocks that would do well when the dam broke.  Which it did.  The President has said he deliberately downplayed the pandemic because he likes to be positive, rather than deal with reality.  His son-in-law and nominal head of the pandemic response has said they intentionally gave contradictory directives.  All this bullshit naturally made things even worse.  At the same time, the Bullshit President encouraged well-armed, poorly-educated paramilitary loyalists to blame the people trying to carry out those directives for all their real and imagined problems.  They prepared to and, in some cases, even killed others to defend their imagined rights against imagined threats, while all the time their real problems go worse.

The bullshit was walking, walking away rather than solving problems.  And finally, the problems became DJ Trump’s problems.  The pandemic he’d ignored and bullshitted was destroying the economic recovery he’d been left by his predecessor like a squandered inheritance wasted on a foolish prodigal son too vain to repent.  Hundreds of thousands of people were dead, millions more sick and unable to work, many crippled for life..  And people who were tired of the ineffective bullshit were looking to his opponent for real answers to their real questions.  But the Republican party, its information machines and candidates and operatives and paramilitaries and wealthy donors alike, are unable to produce real answers; instead they doubled-down on the bullshit.  They started screaming about fraud and undermining democracy itself even before the voting had begun, preparing to reject any result they didn’t like no matter how clear-cut.  And the ones with the guns and the lack of information or critical judgment, the poorly-educated paramilitary militias with their conspiracy theories and bullshit dreams of racial superiority, believed the bullshit.  They launched an insurrection, which has not yet ended, to try to overthrow the freely elected government of their nation based on the bullshit assertion that it was not elected.  They pursued strategies and tactics which could not possibly achieve the goals they wanted, because bullshit knows neither facts nor logic.  The bullshitters who had encouraged them in their delusions were shocked, shocked that anyone would act to save the democracy which the bullshitters had said was being destroyed, by trying to destroy the actual democracy and kill the actual elected representatives of the actual majority of voters.  Then the bullshitters do what bullshitters do:  they tried to bullshit their way out of the problem as they saw it.  This is a public relations nightmare for Republicans; someone believed their bullshit and created real-world problems while the Republican Party was engrossed in solving phony problems only.  So they made fact-free assertions, before anyone could possibly have any facts at all, that Antifa and BLM had been behind the insurrection.  Because that is what bullshitters do:  they bullshit.  They say whatever will help in the moment, and since they are unconcerned for truth they can speak instantly without having to wait for information.  They say, “I want no violence,” the same way they say “No quid pro quo”—-I want you to do this but I want legal cover so I’ll use words that contradict my clearly expressed desires.

In the meantime, the terrorist rebellion they’d incited with their bullshit, and which they continue to incite by sticking with their bullshit claims of fraud and their bullshit endorsement of racists and paranoids, of Proud Boys and QAnon, was left angered and hate-filled (since bullshit is great at stirring up passions) but without any clear direction or realistic goals (since that would require engagement with reality).  They may do a lot of damage; they are plotting mass murder, and no one really knows who will act on those plans and who is just bullshitting.  But they have no real strategy, no actual idea what winning or losing would look like, and absolutely no idea what they would do if they won or how they would solve the nation’s problems.  They only have their bullshit-fueled rage and bullshit-fueled dreams, dreams of vengeance and power and the magical end of all their problems.  And while their bullshit machines at FOX News and talk radio and the internet produce more bullshit, and their voter base drowns in bullshit and loses all sense of reality, the Republican leaders are incapable of offering useful ideas to solve the very real problems of the pandemic, of racial justice, of a floundering economy, and of a growing white nationalist insurgency.  They can only bullshit and hope that somehow the problems go away.

The bullshit has led to bloodshed, and likely will lead to more.  The bullshitters encourage and incite and protect the bloodshed, even as they denounce it.  They cannot do otherwise at this point; it would take too much self-awareness to change course.  They believe their own bullshit, or else simply cannot conceive of any alternative to bullshitting.  Pirro and Hannity and Jones and Dobbs and the rest cannot simply come out and start dropping truth, even if they know it; they’d lose their bullshit-addicted audience without gaining any new one from those truth-lovers, and thus lose all their power.  The demagogues like Hawley and Cruz and Gaetz are in the same fix; they have power over the bullshit mob only as long as they provide more bullshit, and will be cast aside in a second if they deviate from the established party line and thus lose any influence to stop the madness they started.  So the power in the Republican Party today can only be used to stop the solution of problems and to create new ones; it is incapable of being redirected to solve real problems since it is disengaged from reality.  The only real solution is for the nation to disengage from the Republican Party.  Some new, more pragmatic center-right party will emerge to fill the void, eventually; but until then there are only two sides to American politics:  the party that attempts to engage with real problems in the real world and looks for real solutions even if sometimes it misses, versus the party that attempts to avoid reality, that ignores truth, and which if it ever finds a real solution it is only like the proverbial blind squirrel finding a nut buried under a pile of bullshit. 

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

January 2, 2020

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

——-H. Frankfurt

Aside from Bergson’s essay, there has been relatively little philosophical discussion of comedy or the comic. There has been even less serious discussion of bullshit; in fact, there has been only one book on the subject, which itself was based on an essay by the same author. What is “bullshit,” and why should we care? Our initial thought is that we should not; one calls something “bullshit” to say it does not deserve our attention. Harry Frankfurt’s argument is that it is valuable to consider the concept of “bullshit” even if bullshit itself is not worth considering. ( Harry G. Franfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)) My humble opinion is that the concepts of bullshit and the comic have several connections, and understanding these helps clarify the meaning and significance of both.

Bullshit is not lying, though it is related and they can be confused. Sometimes we say, “That’s bull!” when what we mean is, “You’re lying!” But as Dr. Frankfurt points out, the two seem to be something different. The liar is deceptive about the facts. The liar wants you to believe something about the world is one way when in fact it is another. The liar knows what reality is; as they say, it isn’t a lie if you actually believe it (or more accurately, you’re not a liar if you believe it). The bullshitter is aiming at something else. The bullshitter wants to deceive about his or her self, motives and character. Let me suggest a relatively uncontroversial example. Suppose you heard your father loudly proclaim how wonderful your mother is, how smart, how funny, how she did a wonderful job raising you, how lovely she is and so on. And (for the sake of argument at least) suppose you agreed with everything he said. You wouldn’t say “It’s al lies;” it’s true. But suppose you know that she cries herself to sleep because of his numerous affairs, how he stays with her because the property is in her name, and how he privately shows little appreciation for her at all. Then you may say “It’s all bullshit!”——not that what he said was false, but that he was false in saying it, as if he cared. It’s not that he wants to deceive anyone about what his wife is like; he only cares that he deceive them about what he is like, so that they believe he’s a good, loving, loyal, appreciative husband.
The liar cares about the truth. The liar knows what the truth is and is engaged with it, specifically to avoid it. The concept of “lie” depends upon the concept of “truth;” you cannot have have a lie without there being a truth, and the lie can’t exist unless it is mistaken for a truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth at all. (Bullshit, pp. 33-34) The bullshitter just wants to project an image, and says whatever suits that purpose. The actual content is irrelevant; the bullshitter need not even know what the truth is. If the lie is deliberate miscommunication or false communication, then bullshit isn’t communication at all. ( pp. 42-43) It is “false communication” in a second sense: not the communication of counterfeit truth, but a counterfeit of communication itself. (pp. 54-55) It suits the bullshitter just fine if we all give up on the idea of distinguishing between truth and falsehood completely; the bullshitter simply says whatever is useful to serve the purpose of the moment. Bullshit attacks the very existence of truth itself, and the relevance of truth to discussion. In this regard, Frankfurt says, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than is lying.  ( pp. 60-61)

Comedy has elements in common with both lying and bullshit. One thing on which the philosophers and psychologists seem to agree is that comedy is based on contradiction. Something happens which is surprising and false, but in a way that gives pleasure. Roman occupiers executing a hundred people at a time is horrible. Those hundred people singing  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is hilarious.  The contradiction between the painful situation, the total painlessness of the people, the cheerfulness of the song, and the nihilistic lyrics presents something that has truth in it (“life is quite absurd, and death’s the final word”) in a way that takes the pain away. This bouncy tune, those words, and that situation just don’t go together. Kierkegaard might have said they mutually annihilate each other, as the different elements of irony do ( Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony: with continual reference to Socrates; edited ad translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989] p. 248). Much comedy comes from pain, presented in a way that renders it painless by rendering it absurd, thus meaningless and insignificant, unworthy of consideration. So lying, bullshit and comedy all rely on contradiction: lying on the contradiction between truth and what is claimed, bullshit on the contradiction between the real and purported attitude of the bullshitter to what is said, and comedy between what is said and how it is said.

     The liar and the comedian both rely on the truth. The liar wishes to avoid the truth, and produces a falsity which can be presented as truth. The comedian wishes, in many cases, to present truth but in a way that is not entirely true. The comedian may produce something outrageous in a way that evokes laughter rather than outrage; but still, as John Oliver said, “Any joke is worthless if it’s built upon a lie.” (David Folkenflik, “John Oliver on Facts, Donald Trump and The Supreme Court for Dogs;” Morning Edition (NPR, February 10, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514152562/john-oliver-on-facts-donald-trump-and-the-supreme-court-for-dogs) ) Even in cases where the comedian is telling a story, what makes it funny is if it is relatable, that is, true to the human experience of the audience. And in the case of political humor in particular, that also means it needs to be factually true. A Hegelian might suggest that both lies and comedy are antitheses of some truth, and thus presentations (perhaps mirror images) of the truth. The difference is that the comedian intends to present the truth, though perhaps in a false way; the liar intends to hide the truth. But both differ from the bullshitter in that bullshit does not intend either to reveal or avoid the truth at all.

     Comedy also has elements in common with bullshit, so much that sometimes the two are confused as here. In both cases the performer is more concerned with the reaction of the audience than with the truth of the statement. There is a contradiction between what the performer says (or writes) versus the actual intentions. If you believe Huckleberry Finn or Blazing Saddles seriously mean the racist statements they contain, you find them horrifying (or, if you’re racist, perhaps not) but if you understand the joke and see the disconnection between the comedian’s words versus intentions, you see them as a satire on the racism of the characters and find it funny—-though, as they say, “funny because it’s true” as a true(ish) presentation of racists. The difference is that the bullshitter wants to be perceived as serious, while the comedian wants to be perceived as “just joking” even when he or she may in fact care a great deal about the message hidden in the joke.
Comedy can often “call out” real evils or real problems when a straightforward denunciation might be mistaken for bullshit. The bullshitter, after all, wants to be taken seriously even when he or she is in fact not serious; the comedian says, “Don’t take me seriously” even when saying very serious things. The parallels with Socrates are obvious even without the character of Comicus. Charlie Chaplain’s work is particularly striking in this regard; even without the spoken word, films such as Modern Times pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of early 20th century capitalism, while The Great Dictator called out Fascism at a time when many of America’s political and cultural leaders were praising Hitler.

     This is the real difference between comedy versus bullshit, and the real power of comedy. Bullshit relies on the covert contradiction. It appears to be communication, but it is not; it is just “hot air,” empty exhalation. The bullshitter wants to be taken as sincere, as caring about the words he or she is expressing. If it is seen to be what it is, it loses its power. Comedy, by contrast, relies on the explicit contradiction. This is true even of physical comedy, which appears for a moment to be painful or fatal but then is revealed to be harmless. Verbal comedy in its most frivolous forms (such as puns) depends on the hearer hearing one thing and then realizing that what was actually said and meant was something else. The pleasure comes from the realization of the contradiction. If the contradiction isn’t recognized by the audience, they are said to “miss the joke.”

     The lie gets its power from the concealed contradiction, in presenting a false claim as true. Bullshit gets its power from the concealed contradiction that the bullshitter doesn’t care and may not even know what the truth is, but wishes to seem sincere. Comedy gets its power from the revealed contradiction. This is why it is inherently comic to expose bullshit. When, in the classic fairy tale, the Emperor is tricked into walking down the street naked, what is hilarious is not the nudity. If it had been an act of religious humility, his society would have honored it; if he’d barely escaped from a fire, it might have been embarrassing but also fortunate. What makes it funny is that he was conned by a liar who saw he was vacuous, pretentious, or in short, bullshitting the people. The “tailor” was a straight-up liar, spinning not cloth but only tales of magical clothes that cannot be seen by fools. The Emperor, being a bullshitter, wanted to be seen as wise and was thus too ashamed to admit he could not see the clothes. The courtiers too were not trying to deceive the Emperor about the clothes; unlike the “tailor,” they believed the magical clothes existed, though they could not see them. They only wished to deceive others about what they themselves actually knew. When an ignorant, unpretentious child came along, and blurted out what everyone knew but was afraid to admit, the Emperor was exposed in more ways than one. It is the shame of being shown to have been a fool pretending to be so superior that he could see this magical suit, when actually there was nothing to see, that made the situation so hilarious.  Likewise, there’s nothing terribly funny about the Bible’s anti-gay statements, about a cleric denouncing homosexuality, or about a person living in the closet for fear of being rejected by family and friends, and possibly fired or otherwise harmed if his or her homosexuality became public knowledge. But when a stridently anti-gay preacher is outed by being caught up in a police raid on gay sex in a public bathroom, it becomes the fodder for countless jokes. What makes it funny is the revelation, showing that all that preaching and fulminating was nothing but bullshit.

     Bullshit is an essential tool of dictators and would-be dictators of all stripes. Whether their policies are in fact wise or stupid, they depend primarily on the people believing that the Dear Leader actually gives a damn about anyone else, or about the nation as a whole. That is why authoritarians hate real comedy; the bullshitter is a joke waiting to be made, and knows it, and thus fears being laughed at more than anything else.  Maybe that is part of why we seem to judge comedians more harshly than we judge our so-called “role models” and “pillars of society.” Today even the most conservative, subservient, obedient and reverent citizen these days has decided that the legal, political and religious leaders of society are just bullshit artists, and that even if the policies they advocate and carry out are good, they themselves are phonies. But the comedian is the one who is supposed to expose the frauds; to find out that the comedian is possibly also bullshitting is just too much. If that is the reason, then the real question should not be why we judge comedians so strictly, but why we don’t judge the others at all.

 

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 6, conclusion)

June 17, 2019

Personally, I do not completely agree with MacIntyre’s communitarian ethics. I do think that his critique of Enlightenment and Modern thought offers the best argument for the conservative project. The political rhetoric of today’s Republicans, whether it is named “emotivism,” “nihilism,” or “bullshit,” reflects a loss of faith in the existence of an objective reality or truth. Nietzsche seems to have described this stance pretty well: God is dead, and they killed him, but they don’t quite recognize themselves that he is dead so they continue to make universal pronouncements about how right they are and how foolish and wrong their enemies are while rejecting the validity of logic, objective facts or expertise, all things once prized by conservatives. My own preference is for an epistemology resting on receptivity coupled with a humility regarding our ability to attain complete truth, the whole truth and nothing but: an epistemology and an ethics more rooted in Hamann, Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen.[i] Humility was the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin, according to St. Augustine of Hippo; and there is too much pride in the reliance on “alternative facts” and spin and will-to-power and bullshit and threats and actual violence coming from the Republican Party today.

It is that which causes so much concern in the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the immigrant community, all religious groups outside of the Christian Religious Right (especially non-Christians but also those non-“Evangelicals”) and virtually all others who are not white, conservative Fundamentalist males. Almost everyone outside the Trump base suspects that the supposedly necessary and neutral fact-finding panel is merely cover for narrowing the human rights of everyone who does not fit a very narrow and ideological vision of “human nature.” Perhaps more troubling, the very language of the announcement of this new panel suggests a fundamental abandonment of the whole concept of “human rights” in favor of a conception “American rights.” Instead of looking at humans as a class and declaring that they are valuable in and of themselves, entitled to certain rights, the announcement of this committee’s inauguration said it would found its notion of rights on specifically American history and values. This is abdicating the defense of “human rights” versus attacks by China, Saudi Arabia and other nations that have insisted that in fact there are no “human rights” and that Western nations have simply been attempting to impose their own values on everyone else. Instead, those nations have wanted to say that some people don’t matter, because they are the wrong religion, or wrong gender, or wrong ethnicity, or have the wrong politics. With this declaration, the Trump administration has thrown its lot in with other nations that seek to impose a government-mandated, government-allowed standard of “human” on others, suiting some for exaltation and others for persecution and humiliation, rather than accepting all people as they are, as people, and treating them first as people.

[i] For more on this, see my blog under the category “Humility” https://philosophicalscraps.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/humility/

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 3)

June 11, 2019

We may seek to anticipate the likely conclusions of Pompeo’s human rights panel by looking at the experts who will be on it. One prominent name that has been mentioned is Robert George. As mentioned above, he has in the past used Kantian logic to explain himself; however, he is a conservative Catholic who has used the term “natural law” in a more Thomistic way to attack homosexuality and abortion, for examples.[i] But I think it is likely misleading to look to the commission itself for predictions as to how our nation’s international policies will develop. In general, President Trump and his supporters, including Administration and Republican leadership, have expressed contempt for “experts” and have pointed to their policy of bringing in people “who were not ‘qualified’ in the conventional sense.”[ii] And when their own experts, hired by them to determine the truth of some matter, have presented facts that were distasteful to them, they simply reject those findings.[iii] The real question therefore does not seem to be what “natural law” means or how it is defined, but how the term is used in an environment where facts, words and values are not fixed realities.

The true philosophy of the Trump Administration, and functionally of the Republican Party as a whole, is not “natural law” of any sort; it is empirical relativism leading to moral nihilism (or perhaps they would prefer the term “realism”). Even this may be too imprecise. In the last two years, the “leader of the free world” has denied mocking a disabled reporter, when literally thousands witnessed the act and millions saw the recording; he has claimed that more people attended his inauguration than attended Obama’s despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary; he has denied calling Tim Cook “Tim Apple” when in a room full of people who heard him do it and wondered why on Earth anyone would lie about something so obvious and so petty; he has asserted that protesters were in fact cheering for him while they gathered around a giant statue of him sitting on a golden toilet; and so on. He has called for the death penalty for five black kids even after they were proven innocent of the crime of which he accused them, and another person was proven guilty. The birtherism, conspiracy theories and so on aren’t just ignorance or racism; they are proven real-time denials of common reality. The Republican party has become the party of “alternative facts:” the denial of objective reality and its replacement with truth-claims that are more convenient. As Harry Frankfurt has argued, this isn’t really even lying. The liar is concerned about truth; he or she wants to avoid a particular truth, to deceive for some purpose. The liar depends on other people accepting that what they see and hear is generally true, just as the counterfeiter depends on the existence of real money in order to pass the fake money he’s made as real. Republicans today operate without any regard for the concept of “truth.” The standard form of verbal communication for this administration is neither honesty nor lying; it is “bullshit.”[iv]  The bullshitter is not engaged in conveying information or communication; it is some other sort of verbal activity, oblivious to the existence of truth. That seems to be the most accurate description of what we see today coming from the highest levels of government and those of the press who serve as its promoters: verbal activity that does not bother to worry whether or not what is said is true, because the point is not to speak truth but to promote the president, to belittle some person, or to attain some other goal. As Frankfurt says, bullshit is more dangerous to truth than lying, because bullshit attacks the entire concept of communication. The liar is still committed to the notion that we communicate with one another to convey information; it’s just that the liar hopes to slip some false information into the mix. The bullshitter denies the relevance or significance of communication, and asserts instead that we talk or shout or tweet or write for other purposes: to emote, to self-promote, to roar, to whine, whatever will best forward the bullshitter’s will-to-power.

In this view, there simply is no such thing as “objective truth” or “reality.” Literally everything you think you know is up for debate, and what will count as “fact” is resolved as nothing more than a contest of wills. From an epistemological perspective, you could call this “relativism;” as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, of that which is that it is, and of that which is not that it is not. If I say the Mueller report totally exonerates Donald Trump, and refuse to read it or listen to you tell me what it says, I can hold onto my belief like a Japanese soldier guarding his jungle hideout even as the Americans raise their flag over the island; and as long as I do this, I haven’t surrendered. For many people, it is more important to “stand up for what I believe,” i.e. to assert his or her own version of reality, than to be “lose the argument,” to be defeated and forced to accept objective reality. This view, which is increasingly common among self-proclaimed conservatives, seems to resemble Nietzschean pragmatism more than any other epistemological stance I can think of. What will count as “real” is what promotes my goals, serves my ends, or makes me feel more powerful and more comfortable.

The fact that this sort of aggressive pragmatic relativism, this construal of reality as a battleground for wills, has become the operating epistemology of the Republican party has profound ethical implications. If I can simply declare that I never said someone was “nasty” despite eyewitnesses and recorded evidence, if I can simply create new realities, then I can also create new moral realities. What is “true” is what I want to be true, and my saying it is my attempt to create a new truth; therefore, what is “good” is what I like, and my moral claims are merely my own will-to-power, my attempt to bend others to accept me as the moral center of the universe. If there is no truth, there is no moral truth, and all morality collapses into nihilism.

 

To be continued….

[i] Conor Finnegan, “State Department to Redefine Human Rights Based on ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’”; ABC News 5/31/2019 (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/state-dept-panel-redefine-human-rights-based-natural/story?id=63400485)

[ii] Chris Cilizza, “The 29 Most Eyebrow-Raising Lines from Jared Kushner’s Axios Interview;” CNN 6/3/2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/03/politics/jared-kushner-axios/index.html)

[iii] Coral Davenport, “Trump Administration’s Strategy on Climate: Try to Bury Its Own Scientific Report;” New York Times 11/25/2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/25/climate/trump-climate-report.html) As another example, the Republican response to the Special Counsel’s report on Russian interference in U.S. elections has been to reject, bury and ignore the conclusions of all the legal and forensic experts hired to uncover the facts.

[iv] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) pp. 19-24, 29-34

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.3

April 4, 2015

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part, 

For the Gods are everywhere.

—-quoted by Harry Frankfurt

I first read After Virtue in 1988, about four years after the second edition was published. It holds up remarkably well. If anything, the early 21st Century culture buttresses his argument that we live today in a Nietzschean/Weberian emotivist society. MacIntyre argued that in the late 20th Century moral language had degenerated into a contest of wills, and claims to moral truth were employed as disguised attempts at manipulation. In the 21st Century, claims to objective empirical truth are likewise emptied of real content, and instead employed as weapons to dominate the other. One example seems to be the climate debate. This is largely a factual debate, it would seem, though it is treated as a moral debate because one group claims its property rights and individual liberties are at stake, while the other claims it is harmed and threatened by the selfishness of the first. In this debate, the factual claim was made that scientists who argued that human activity is a leading cause of climate change for the worse were engaged in a vast conspiracy to gain grant money by purveying falsehoods.[1] But when a major denier of this claim is found to have been funded by the fossil fuel industry, this is not taken as refuting the claims of “climate deniers.”[2] The mere suspicion that “those guys” had mercenary motives was enough to discredit them; but the admission that “our guy” has financial motives does not trigger any self-doubt or retraction, because the factual claims themselves are irrelevant. They were only rhetorical stratagems, not true factual claims.

Whether or not one sides with the 97% of climate scientists who believe human activity is altering global climate for the worse, any objective observation must admit that when someone claims the 97% are all part of a vast conspiracy while rejecting stronger evidence that the 3% are themselves paid to support the opposite view, that is prima facie evidenced that something is going on besides a disagreement over fact claims regarding economic entanglements.   The claim of a vast conspiracy by scientists to fabricate climate evidence was really a rhetorical weapon disguised as a fact-claim, just as the emotivist argues that claims to moral truth are merely rhetorical weapons or tools. Emotivism has grown from a moral theory to an epistemological principle, at least in the popular culture. We have moved from being a culture that no longer believes in “good” to one that also no longer believes in “true.”

Harry Frankfurt has discussed this phenomenon in his seminal essay, On Bullshit.[3] In this essay turned book, Frankfurt attempts to describe “bullshit” as a concept distinct from lying or other forms of misstatement. “Lying” implies that the liar knows what the truth is, and for some reason just wants to avoid it in this case. The liar really depends on everyone else being honest, or at least on the liar himself or herself knowing the truth in order to avoid it. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care about the truth one way or the other. Instead, he or she is simply engaged in some other linguistic exercise, attempting to achieve goals quite apart from any engagement with truth.[4] The bullshitter is concerned with how the audience perceives him or her. The bullshitter wants to seem intelligent, or patriotic, or serious, or whatever, and says whatever he or she feels will lead the audience to believe this. The bullshitter is primarily engaged in manipulating others, not in avoiding or discovering truth.

At this point the connection between the theory of moral language known as “emotivism” and the theory of general language known as “bullshit” converge. Frankfurt writes:

            One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.[5]

Emotivism would seem to be a subspecies of bullshit. The one difference, and it is significant, is that the emotivist is not committed to an unconcern with the truth. MacIntyre’s description of the historical origins of emotivism make this clear.[6] The members of the Bloomsbury circle believed they were making statements of moral fact, when in reality their moral debates were simply contests of will. They did not mean to bullshit and therefore were not bullshitters. Emotivism began as a theory that said, in essence, that people may think they are describing facts when they are actually not. Thus, someone can be simply mistaken, and have a deep concern for “the truth,” but not find it because, the emotivist says, there is no truth to be found. But once someone does accept the claims of emotivism, he or she must either cease using moral language at all, or become a bullshitter.  The bullshitter is the self-aware emotivist.

Dr. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more corrosive to society than lying. The liar is parasitic on the process of seeking and sharing truth; the bullshitter has said that truth does not matter. But society cannot long exist without truth. No organism can. If some cod decided that whether or not sharks were actually in the area did not matter so much as whether the others followed their direction, and the rest became so befuddled about sharks because the leaders were constantly making contradictory claims, and the whole species finally gave up on believing there was a way to know whether there were sharks around or not, then it would be a short time before they were all devoured. Fish, however, do not have the ability to ignore the plain evidence of their senses to their own destruction out of party loyalty or ambition or a desire for attention. Humans, however, can choose bullshit over reality. We can and in many cases have turned supposed debates over the truths of a case or the best possible resolution of a problem into mere contests of will with no actual concern for reality.[7] But when the decision-makers in a society cease being interested in whether they have the facts straight, or whether the policies they propose will work or are working now, then it is only a matter of time before that society collapses. And in a democratic society, we are all decision-makers, and must all care about truth if we are to survive.[8]

To summarize: MacIntyre’s historical argument of the state of moral language is that once “morality” and “ethics” meant something very different: a concern with the particular fulfillment of human nature, of what is “good” for a person to seek and attain, and how to do so. The Aristotelian understanding was that the goal of human life could be found within the nature of human life itself, and called this eudaimonia or “happiness.” The Augustinian development of the Hebraic-Christian tradition argued that this goal lies beyond the human life itself, in its relationship with God. But in the Enlightenment, philosophers threw out both tradition and religion, Aristotle and Augustine, and sought to preserve the basic moral values and language of these without any particular foundation. The ultimate result was emotivism. Moral language ceased to have any fixed meaning, and became available for another purpose: manipulating others to fulfill one’s own irrationally-chosen goals. And to continue this line of argument further with Frankfurt’s discussions as a prompt, the recognition of the hollowness of moral language spread beyond the philosophers to the society as a whole, and from the sphere of moral debate to all levels of discourse, until all truth-claims and not just moral truth-claims became mere tools of the bullshitter to manipulate others and attempt to bend society to his or her own whims. Ultimately, however, this is not sustainable; if we are to survive as a species, we need to “be true to the earth,” as Nietzsche might put it, and seek those truths that will enhance our survival.

But if we are to do that, we ultimately must attack the problem that started all the others: the difficulty moral language has fallen into since the Enlightenment. Until there is some sort of broad consensus regarding moral truth, we cannot expect much headway in the search for consensus on other sorts of truth, since moral nihilism will continually push us towards a general epistemic nihilism.

[1] “Weathering Fights” The Daily Show http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/x1h7ku/weathering-fights—science–what-s-it-up-to- last accessed March 19, 2015

[2] “Things Just Got Very Hot for Climate Deniers’ Favorite Scientist;” Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/23/the-favorite-scientist-of-climate-change-deniers-is-under-fire-for-taking-oil-money/ last accessed March 19, 2015.

[3] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Also, see the interview on “The Daily Show,” http://thedailyshow.cc.com/video-playlists/cuwvn6/daily-show-10035/zz9jnz (last accessed March 25, 2015). Note that in the interview, Frankfurt mentions that the essay was first written in 1985, but published as a book in 2005; so his initial insight is contemporaneous with After Virtue but it somehow was more market-relevant in the 21st Century.

[4] On Bullshit, pp. 55-56

[5] On Bullshit, pp. 61-62

[6] After Virtue, pp. 16-17

[7] Nietzsche said much the same thing, but he thought that the will-to-power was itself a survival instinct; thus he assumed an underlying pragmatism would drive our creation of facts. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Premoral Sense,” http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Nietzsche/Truth_and_Lie_in_an_Extra-Moral_Sense.htm last accessed April 3, 2015

[8] On this point, see Harry Frankfurt, On Truth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

A modern philosopher in a postmodern world.

February 17, 2012

Well, I do intend to get back to my series on the philosophy of work.  However, I have been grading tests and so on, and thus have not had time to write.  Not, at least, here.  I did, however, have plenty of time to write a chat with my daughter.  Here’s part of it:

[2/14/12 11:21:57 AM] teh.parents: Two weeks is the midterm, then we move into the moderns.  I’m more of a modern philosopher.[2/14/12 11:22:05 AM] teh.parents: Using the term academically, of course.

[2/14/12 11:22:15 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i was about to say, but you were too fast for me…

[2/14/12 11:22:17 AM] teh.parents: Since “modern” actually means 100 years old.

[2/14/12 11:22:39 AM] JEUNE FILLE: ok then

[2/14/12 11:22:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: half modern.

[2/14/12 11:23:15 AM] teh.parents: I’m still inclined to think postmodernism was a mistake.

[2/14/12 11:23:35 AM] JEUNE FILLE: tu insultes mon pays actuel!

[2/14/12 11:23:52 AM] teh.parents: It’s one thing to say there are perspectives, another to jump to the conclusion that therefore there is no truth at all.

[2/14/12 11:25:06 AM] teh.parents: As Harry Frankfurt says, you can’t survive very long without truth.  Not Truth, but simple recognition of objective reality.

[2/14/12 11:26:07 AM] teh.parents: I think Stephen Colbert may have diagnosed the perils of postmodernism most succintly when he coined “Wikiality” and “Wikilobbying”

[2/14/12 11:27:01 AM] teh.parents: The first says that truth is democratized, so “true” is whatever we all agree that it is; the second says that truth is a commodity to be produced and sold.

[2/14/12 11:27:44 AM] JEUNE FILLE: oui.

[2/14/12 11:27:45 AM] teh.parents: So in the first, the population of elephants is growing, and in the second, Microsoft is a caring company because they pay people to write articles about how caring they are.

[2/14/12 11:27:55 AM] JEUNE FILLE: haha

[2/14/12 11:28:25 AM] teh.parents: And the idea of checking reality to see if these are true seems almost quaint.

[2/14/12 11:28:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: lol

[2/14/12 11:28:56 AM] teh.parents: wol

[2/14/12 11:29:03 AM] teh.parents: Weeping out loud

[2/14/12 11:29:07 AM] JEUNE FILLE: what has the philosophical response been to it all though?

[2/14/12 11:30:14 AM] teh.parents: Well, I’m not really a 21st century philosopher.  But I’m not sure anyone else is, either, since there hasn’t been a new job created in ten years.  So all the work is being done by 20th century philosophers.

[2/14/12 11:30:59 AM] teh.parents: The Wittgensteinians would say that we all play our separate language games, with some debate over how permeable the borders of different language games are.

[2/14/12 11:31:08 AM] teh.parents: So that’s one for postmodernism.

[2/14/12 11:31:37 AM] JEUNE FILLE: hm.

[2/14/12 11:32:02 AM] teh.parents: The Marxists would say our intellectual categories are created by our material substructure, so the very world we live in is an intellectual construct of our economic situation.

[2/14/12 11:32:07 AM] teh.parents: That’s two.

[2/14/12 11:32:28 AM] teh.parents: Sartre— well, you know.  That’s three.

[2/14/12 11:33:22 AM] teh.parents: Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch and the other new Platonists—-against.

[2/14/12 11:33:38 AM] teh.parents: But they’re hardly discussed, really.

[2/14/12 11:33:52 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i know of people in france and europe thinking beyond etc, but mainly they just take what has been given and analyze according to that, which in turn creates new things, but isn’t necessarily as groundbreaking i think.

[2/14/12 11:34:04 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i see

[2/14/12 11:34:30 AM] teh.parents: Weil is really interesting to me, but I haven’t had time to work on her in years.

[2/14/12 11:35:43 AM] teh.parents: The Objectivists try to stay rooted in objective reality, and to maintain an epistemology of receptivity instead of assuming that we actively manufacture our world (with the further idea that since it’s manufactured, there is no shared reality).

From here on, the conversation wanders to the relative merits of Rand; so I’ll end the discussion.

I know that this is a rather superficial description of “postmodernism.”  And to an extent, I intend it as such, since I’m more interested in its manifestations in popular culture than in the more nuanced formulations that may be put forth by philosophers and literary critics.  I see the abandonment of truth as a widespread social-political movement.  Once it was Marxists who would say that our minds construct our world, and our truths are only the ideologies of oppressors.  Now, one is even more likely to hear this argued by a radio shock-jock with a high school education (and a drug habit and about 400 extra pounds).  In the USSR, people starved by the millions because agricultural policy was set by political and ideological agendas, and damn the science.  Only those scientists who were willing to abandon the essence of scientific method, and conform their “scientific” pronouncements to suit the party’s politics, were listened to at all.  Eventually, the denial of truth virtually destroyed Soviet agriculture, and they were forced to import food from people who did not deny the effects of selective breeding on crops.  In the U.S. today, economic, climate, energy and other policies is largely set by people who deny climate science for political and ideological reasons.  Even a reasonable and harmless gesture towards acknowledging the science, like Chu’s suggestion that we could significantly reduce global warming by lightening the color of roofs and highways, is met with violent resistance, ridicule, contempt and even rage.  Those who use science and observation to reach conclusions are met with the same hatred that the Soviets turned towards those scientists who spoke a scientific theory that seemed to conflict with the economic-political structure of the power elite, and for the same reason.  Just as the Left used to deny objective truth to defend ideological convictions, so now the Right demands the same privilege today.  Just as a Soviet scientist could be branded a traitor for speaking a scientific truth that offended against political orthodoxy, so now the Right brands any scientist whose theories are “bad for business” as a traitor.

The “modern” mindset insisted that there was such a thing as “truth” and that we could find it.  It erred, often, in mistaking some narrow vision of the truth (European, imperial, etc.) for all truth.  For this, postmodernism was and is a valuable corrective.  But what has replaced modern hubris is postmodern chaos.  As the postmodern conception has played out in the wider culture, it has come to mean that there is no truth, not even objective truths about reality going on under one’s nose.  And as Frankfurt has said, a society that doesn’t know what the truth is can’t really function.  It doesn’t know what to do, how to respond to events or even what those events are.  Our politics today seem like the spasms of an amoeba shocked by an electric spark.  Blind and deaf, it can only twitch and try flowing first this way, then that, until the assault either stops or kills it.  We don’t know what to do about climate change, or the recession, or most of the other important challenges facing us, because we refuse to listen to any truth we don’t like.  And in the Disinformation Age, you can find any truth you want, somewhere on the internet, to save you from the inconvenience of objective reality.   You can live in your own world, with the “truths” of your own race or class or party or religion, until actual, objective truth kills you.  Or as Frankfurt might put it, you can choose bullshit and hope for the best, or you can choose truth, simple reality about the world around you, and try to guide your life accordingly.