Journalists and commentators covering the 2016 presidential election seemed at a loss to explain how Trump’s supporters could jeer at “Lyin'” Hillary Clinton and cheer a man a man whose speeches were filled with easy to recognize falsehoods. I scratched my head until I read Brene Brown‘s newest book, Braving the Wilderness.
On page 90, Brown begins to describe bullshit. (I am not going to pull any punches with language here.) In her research in how people struggle to maintain their authenticity and integrity when engaging in debates and discussions driven by emotion rather than shared understanding of facts, she found that we all rely on bullshitting from time to time. We bullshit ourselves and we bullshit others, sometimes simultaneously. In our “need to fit in culture” we often jump into an argument and start arguing even when we don’t really know anything about the matter.
Also people are increasingly cynical and growing tired of having to sort through information to figure out “how things truly are.” So we say whatever and we put up bullshit and stop asking questions. This quickly devolves into you’re either with us or agin’ us.
Brene Brown also found her research participants made a distinction between lying and bullshitting. I found this intriguing enough to go to the source. Brown leaned heavily on the scholarly work of Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus Princeton professor who wrote On Bullshit in 2005. I downloaded the short book and struggled through the first part, then hit pay dirt.
The liar makes his/her statement with the intention to deceive. Generally it is perceived that this person generally cares about the truth and facts, but practices deception on occasion. Ms. Clinton’s lawyerly parsing of the truth probably “feels” like a purposeful deception to many people, whereas, I imagine she sees it as walking finely along the boundary of truth.
The bullshitter, on the other hand, has a more distant relationship with the truth. He/she may not know what the facts actually are–as when we bullshit our way through a college essay exam. Or they may not have much interest in becoming informed but find themselves quizzed on their opinion. Bullshit can rely mostly on an emotional argument, and if the facts are false, they only have to fit with the bullshit narrative.
The bullshitter and the liar are both trying to get away with something. But the bullshitter is trying to make a connection, get us to like him/her, bluff, or other motive. His/her “statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth–this indifference to how things really are–that I regard as the essence of bullshit.” (Frankfurt, p. 33)
We also have much more forgiveness for a bullshitter than a liar. “We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.” (Frankfurt, p. 48) Trump supporters saw Trump bullshitting, but with much greater consequence, perceived Clinton as a liar. Furthermore:
The LIAR is concerned with truth values. “In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.” (p. 50)
Whereas, the BULLSHITTER has much more freedom. “His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared…to fake the context as well… What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise…he misrepresents what he is up to.” (p. 53)
It seemed strange at first that Frankfurt calls the bullshitter the greater enemy of the truth than the liar. The liar still has a nodding acquaintance with the authority of truth. The bullshitter pays no attention to truth at all.
It is not clear that there is more bullshit in the world today than in previous times; however, bullshit can do more damage, because as our access to correct information proliferates, there is more skepticism about what actually makes up objective reality. This loss of confidence cascades into a retreat from the disciplines of acquiring knowledge and instead we value sincerity or authenticity.
With minds dulled by entertainment and gossip, how do we discern between what is sincere and what is bullshit? Especially when people prize their own opinions so highly.
More to the point of leadership, what is to be done in our own conversations when we encounter speakers who use “us vs them” and look askance at facts in favor of emotion? Brene Brown encourages two behaviors (besides avoiding bullshit): get curious and stay civil. This is also good advice when you are triggered. Hmm, I doubt it’s a coincidence that someone else’s bullshit can easily trigger me. “Generosity, empathy, and curiosity (e.g., Where did you read this or hear this?) can go a long way in our efforts to question what we’re hearing and introduce fact.” (Brown, p. 95) And civility is treating others as you’d like to be treated or caring for one’s identity without degrading someone else’s in the process.
Get curious. Stay civil.
Author’s note: Growing up around horses, I have always found the word bullshit to be non-offensive and an accurate description of what happens when someone piles the nonsense higher and higher. Frankfurt mentions that in Britain, it is more likely to be called humbug. Does humbug have the same meaning? And does it carry the same “slightly dirty word taint”?