Aha! Moment in the Culture Wars

bullshitJournalists 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”?





Donald Trump and Spiral Dynamics

What does Joel Osteen have in common with Donald Trump?
What does Joel Osteen have in common with Donald Trump?
What does Donald Trump have in common with Joel Osteen?
What does Donald Trump have in common with Joel Osteen?

One of the inspirations for starting this blog was the teaching I received from Rob Bell and Richard Rohr on spiral dynamics. I was so intrigued by this concept I dug out other books I had read, such as Real Power by Janet O. Hagberg. I ordered Transformations of Consciousness by Wilber, Engler and Brown and intended to read it. My first posts were going to be my synthesis of these ideas and its usefulness as a tool for leaders.

Then life intervened and a few people who are important to me did not react very positively when I shared the new ideas I was mulling over. It could just as easily have been my poor presentation, but it shook my enthusiasm.

I set this project aside and got busy with other projects. And then Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States and his popularity completely mystified me. WTF?

I hoped he would flame out with each new absurd pronouncement. He got away with his ridiculous statements about Mexicans with a few canceled contracts. Then surely his criticisms of John McCain would self-destruct his campaign. Instead his popularity went up. WTF?

Then I witnessed the Trump phenomenon up close while I was bicycling across Iowa with RAGBRAI. In spite of his criticisms of John Kerry’s bicycle riding proclivities, his campaign sent a Trump bus and volunteers to dog the route each of the 7 days. This inspired two extreme reactions. Either his campaign bus got cheers and a thumbs up or jeers and the finger. No one was indifferent. It was impossible to tell the numerical balance without spending a lot of time near the bus. (I had a visceral negative reaction.) I realized then that I had to spend some time figuring out how anyone could be enthusiastic about his candidacy. My teammate Barb had the same idea and she pedaled hard to catch up with a woman who cheered only to learn that this woman also loved Sarah Palin. Barb drifted away wondering WTF?

This led me back to the theory of spiral dynamics and a possible explanation.

It is dangerous to explain spiral dynamics in a nutshell; however, this is a blog and not a 323 page book, so I will attempt to do it justice. First, it assumes that there are levels or stages of consciousness and that people grow in their consciousness through life experience and especially through suffering. Similar levels of emotional maturity have been developed by various psychologists. It is not a perfect lens but it offers insight. (If the word consciousness makes you buggy then think spiritual and emotional maturity.)

Rob Bell and Richard Rohr presented spiral dynamics in two tiers and with several levels on each tier. They assigned them names, numbers and colors. The first level begins the kind of chaos–emotional and social–frequently associated with toddlers, addicts and sociopaths. The focus is on the individual in level one. Hopefully you quickly mature or recover to the second level with a community focus. People in level two are strongly identified with their tribe and relate to God with mystical or magical thinking. They do not see themselves as able to set goals and go out and accomplish them and the setbacks they experience feel random and like the gods must be angry.

Level three is sometimes called “power” and this is because level three people again regain their individualistic outlook. They learn they can harness their personal power and accomplish goals they set and sometimes lead others. If you stay in this level you can become very egotistical. You also can call forth level two people who aspire to be more like the level three leader. When Rob Bell presented level three he used Joel Osteen as an example of a level three religious leader calling forth level two people (in a benign way).

My best explanation for Donald Trump’s popularity in the presidential race is that he is a level three leader and there are a lot of level two people who find him inspiring. (Either that or it is the natural human fascination with car crashes and train wrecks.)

Which leads me to question, how many level two people are there? Well 43,500 people attend Joel Osteen’s church each week in Houston.  A lot apparently.

There are more levels and the point of Rob and Richard’s seminar was to help people understand it and inspire them to lead from the Second Tier.

Level four is a community-outlook again. The movement from individual to community to individual to community is what gives the upward progression of consciousness its spiral twist. Level four has traditional, hierarchical values. The evangelical church in America today is very level four with its male-dominated leadership.

Level five is individual-focused and values technology and modern analytical ways of thinking about the world. It is also where most atheists reside. As a political scientist I could see a parallel with the traditional level four (greatest generation) winning World War II only to be overtaken by the technocratic McNamara’s of the world running the Vietnam War using statistics.

Level six is once again community oriented and post-modern. Many millennials living on the coasts have matured into a society with this as the predominant consciousness. Everyone has a story and everyone’s story matter–yours as much as mine.

The next level is in a second tier and requires a jump in consciousness. While it changes back to an individual focus again it is with the ability to see all of the levels with compassion. In the first tier, lower level people looked ahead with fear at the others and higher level people looked back with disdain. The second tier people know that we have the ability as humans to be tribal and can be called forth to honor others’ stories or to acts of compassion.

There are additional levels in Tier Two but it becomes vague since so few people achieve it. Think Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi.  Rob and Richard hope that more people will aspire to raise their consciousness, especially leaders, so we can cope with the unique challenges that lie ahead.

There is a lot more to unpack in spiral dynamics and I will return to the topic. Meanwhile, for me, it is the best explanation of the Donald Trump phenomenon. And my puzzlement and sometimes disdain is a signal that I have not evolved to Tier Two yet.

The journey continues.

PS. I do not recommend Transformations of Consciousness as it is much too technical tomb of psychology. I will keep looking for a better explanation of spiral dynamics.