Posts Tagged ‘On 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. 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