Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Bullshit: Common Currency in Public Discussion?

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.
--Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (2005) Princeton University

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it. -- Alberto Brandolini
Diverting Inquiry. When was the last time you asked a question and got a straight answer? If you can remember it, treasure it, because it doesn't happen all that much; particularly, among adults and those children trying to act like them.

When I was a kid I had an uncle who, when I asked him a question, would respond, "Whatsit teeya?" (What is it to you?) This was a very effective response for:
a. blocking a question he probably didn't know the answer to; or
b. extorting some favor in return for an answer he supposedly had; or
c. challenging my personal authority to even ask a question – "Children should be seen and not heard!"

Learning the Game. Kids have a hard time. They're fed the story that honesty and forthrightness always come first. But they soon learn the bitter lesson that it is adults who decide what is honesty and what is impertinence. There is also the painful "one-up(wo)man ship game" to be mastered. Those who are one-up can mistreat those who are not.

By the time we are "grown up," we expect bullshit in politics and commerce; it useful for getting around without having to tell a bald-face lie. Bullshit is not quite lying, but it confers many of the benefits of lying -- and is considered much more "tactful." But, many people still ask with bewonderment, "B. S.? Even in Education and Political Campaigning?!!!" (Drop your jaw at this point.)

Benefits of the Practice. We are quite accustomed to merchandisers "enhancing" the descriptions of their wares to attract us to them. Caveat Emptor, as they say. But why do educators, politicians and even (Horrors!?) religious leaders bullshit?

Because BS is tactful, therefore more likely forgivable than lying. Unlike a suspected lie, it doesn't burden the recipient with the compulsion to check it out and risk being perceived as challenging authority, i.e. "impertinent." Consequently, almost everything stated is cautiously taken with a "grain of salt," a taste that is all too easy to get used to. One can boast to oneself of having a critical mind without running any of the real risks of such a possession.

Most importantly, BS is functional; it works. On your first day, say, in class as a teacher, some wiseacre raises his (just a likely, "her") hand and asks you, smirking pointedly, if you had a "good" night last night. If you say, "My private life's none of your business," you can be reasonably sure that kid's parents are going to complain about your "unfriendliness." (Kid's complaint to helicopter parent: "Our new teacher won't even answer our questions!") Your principal will likely drag you in to remind you that the "acceptable professional conduct needed for renewal of one's contract" requires one to attempt to maintain "good public relations." Better smoke, mirrors and good, old B.S.

However, there is such public trust in educators that, up until quite recently, they could get away with massive bullshit for a longer period than could businessmen or politicians. School districts test their students and report their own results. They wouldn't possibly fake them, would they? (See Gaming the System: a Great Tradition!.)

The Risks. There is, at issue, status and money. Let's look again at my uncle's, "Whatsit teeya?" Certainly few degreed educators can own up to not knowing an answer. Especially when the question appears simple to the questioner or the public listening in. (If asked an uninformed or stupid question, for the sake of appearance one must, it appears, give either a stupid or uninformed answer. But one always has good old BS to the rescue!)

But ask a simple, honest question, and you get BS, too. Is there a kind of extortionary pressure given in an answer? Perhaps, if it takes place at an alumni banquet where a question of concern is brought up. For example a response to such a question might be, "We have several possibilities to address the issue you bring up, but little budget for it."

The challenge to the questioner works if he or she is seen as lower in rank then the person questioned: "I think the salary issue, which most of you will concede has been debated to exhaustion, will be handled at a faculty meeting that takes place after the trustees meet. Your committee chairs will be notified." (I have heard university officials, on many an occasion, say something similar despite having taken no polls to find out how many believe debate has ever reached the exhaustion stage.)

Spreading It. There used to be a farm implement called a manure-spreader. It did what you imagine. Those specimen-donors who believe themselves to benefit from spreading BS imagine that their donees, like growing crops, benefit also. Only the essential growth elements are missing.

For more on this, plus references see what follows. Some years back, before BS was referred to directly and euphemized for the sake of propriety, I asked a group of my university students who had school aged children to report on some of the "sloganeering" they encountered in the children's schools. You can find their essays and further references at
Disciplinary Slogans: A Critique of Three Slogans

Pseudo-Solutions: three disciplinary slogans.

--- EGR