As part of a series of events celebrating what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, President Obama gave a speech in Johannesburg yesterday, in which he made reference to “the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more”.
While it seems clear that he was making a direct reference to President Trump, his remarks bring to mind broader issues such as the value of truth to democracy, and the difference between lies and liars on the one hand, and bullshitters on the other.
What follows here is mostly derivative of Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit, which you can find easily enough online (the lack of copyright information on the copies I’ve seen means I won’t link to it). The essay was later expanded into a (short) book, which you can find on Amazon (and elsewhere too, no doubt).
One reason that distinguishing between lying and bullshitting is interesting is that it’s one of those distinctions that seem obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily at first, when trying to understand what makes Trump different to other politicians who also lie (and who might even lie on a regular basis).
In short, the distinction is this: the liar is aware of what the truth is, but is trying to lead her audience away from knowing the truth. For them, telling an untruth is intended to create a false conception of reality.
The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care about what is true or false, and are mostly interested saying whatever it takes – no matter whether that contradicts the facts, or contradicts what they said yesterday – to hide the fact that they don’t care about truth.
Bullshit is simply rhetoric, and the goal of the bullshitter is to persuade, whereas for liars the goal is to mislead.
Another way of articulating the difference is to say that people who lie, and people who tell the truth, are in essence playing a similar game as each other, because a liar who is exposed will consider themselves accountable to something independently verifiable. You can’t lie unless you know the truth, or unless you think you know the truth.
The bullshitter is playing a different game, in that she does not reject the authority of the truth, so much as pay no attention to it. As a bullshitter, you might not even have the conviction that you know what is true – you’re simply telling a story in order to persuade.
As Frankfurt argues, this makes bullshit a greater enemy to the truth than lies are, because once you untether your statements from independently verifiable data, there are no constraints on what you say at all – and in my estimation, bullshitters might also find themselves in a sort of (internal) epistemic arms-race, in that greater amounts and more layers of bullshit will keep needing to be added to support the bullshit expressed previously.
Bullshitting is a programme of obfuscation, involving what Frankfurt calls a “panoramic” focus whereby you don’t limit yourself to deceiving people about particular facts, but instead take the liberty of ignoring facts as well as fabricating a context, if necessary.
For example: in Trump’s case, an example of bullshitting with regard to context is in how he routinely conflates the Russian hacking with the separate issue of collusion. This means that any time doubt is cast on the collusion narrative, the uncritical members of his base think that the hacking narrative is also undermined, even though these are logically independent issues.
Bullshit, then, is also defined by the process that creates it – saying whatever it takes to promote a narrative without necessarily even knowing what the truth is, versus (in the case of lying) saying something particular to distract or mislead from some other particular bit of information (which you are aware of, and believe to be true).
Another key difference is that bullshit can be true, whether you know it to be so or not, or whether you later find out it’s true or not. You didn’t say it because of its relationship to what’s true, so it’s entirely possible that some bullshit ends up corresponding to the facts.
Many of our “hot takes” are probably bullshit, for example – including hot takes from people who want to create a negative perception about Trump. To some extent, this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of social media, where too many of us are concerned with being the first to offer some all-encompassing analysis of character, and construct a collage of “evidence” without due regard for internal consistency, or even veracity – the point or motivation is to paint a picture, rather than to painstakingly speak “the truth” or deliberately tell a lie.
According to this distinction, it becomes largely irrelevant whether you consider Obama (or Clinton, or whomever) to be the “liar in chief”, because even if they were, they were still capable of admitting to lying – which a bullshitter would not do.
The distinction matters because undermining facts undermines democracy in that democracy is premised on choice, and choice is premised on having access to true information. If bullshit is more damaging to truth than lies are, then it is also more damaging to democracy.
The podcast of a conversation with Eusebius McKaiser on this topic, from earlier today: