Book Title: On Bullshit
Author: Harry G. Frankfurt
The main purpose of the book; “On Bullshit” is “to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what is not – or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of the concept.”
There are many issues in the book but the most prominent one is the misconception about bullshit and its use. The author; Frankfurt also points out the misuse of the term and how the important questions about the concept is not only unanswered but unasked.
Frankfurt clarifies the concept of bullshit by breaking the word apart into “bull” and “shit,” then defining them separately. He defines bull as something that is not necessarily meaningful and shit as something that is not crafty or not well done, with attention.
Another way that Frankfurt identifies bullshit is by acknowledging its characteristics through synonyms and similar words like “Lying,” “Humbug,” “Bluff,” and “Hot air.” Frankfurt says that although these words are similar, they have their differences. For example, for “Humbug” “the difference appears on the whole to have more to do with considerations of gentility, and certain rhetorical parameters, than with the strictly literal modes of significance.” It is more polite as well as less intense to say “Humbug!” than it is to say “Bullshit!”
In explaining the differences between bullshit and lying, the author identifies that for bullshit, it is not about whether what is being said is true or false. Although the information the bullshitter gives is manipulative, the bullshitter’s concern is on the effectiveness of the manipulation.
An example can be seen in an excerpt of Chimamanda Adiche’s speech at the 2015 Girl’s Write Now Awards. She points out the effectiveness of likability in promoting sexism in our society and she says that the concept of likability for women is “bullshit.” Chimamanda says;
“I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it is also something that’s quite difficult for even older women and self-professed feminists to shrug off, is that idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy because you have to be likable.
And I say that’s bullshit.”
When Chimamanda said likability is bullshit, she did not use the term just to be fancy. She was also not only talking about the idea of likability, she was calling it bullshit with emphasis on the effect that the concept of likability has on women. The effect being, lack of self esteem, lack of truth to one's self, and pretentiousness.
Again, just like Frankfurt proposed, we see that saying something is bullshit, is not just about the idea and the truthfulness in it but the impact of idea on the people.
Compared to bullshit whose essence is the effectiveness of an idea, the essence of lying is the manipulation of information. Lying won’t be lying if the information were true but bullshit will still be bullshit whether the information is true or not.
One of the intentions of bullshitting is often misconstrued with the lack of truth, which Frankfurt identifies at the beginning of the book.
Frankfurt takes for granted that his audience or people in the world care about the truth in the first place. This is why bullshitting and accepting bullshit is more damaging than lying. Many people believe in certain ideas for vague and uncritically thought reasons. For example, sometimes we accept a belief simply because it confirms our previous beliefs. So even if someone is bullshitting us, the bullshit is effective because we do not critically review and think about our own beliefs, and perspectives, let alone, the effectiveness of whatever is offered to us. On the other hand, if we are told a lie about something, it is because the truth is most likely conflicting with what we believe in. One of the most important aims of the book is the differentiation between bullshit and lies and I think that the Frankfurt did an excellent job in being concise and relating the concepts to many different things.
Frankfurt also emphasizes that there is so much bullshit in the world today, because we now have multiple mediums to pass it on like; social media. In addition, in today’s world, many people like to have an opinion about something and sometimes everything, regardless of if they understand what is being said or not. Frankfurt writes; “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceeds his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled-whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others-to speak extensively about matters which they are to some degree ignorant.”
I agree with the author’s points and I recognize that not only is it important to know the type of information I am receiving, I should know the extent of truth and falsity in the information, I should also know about who is giving the information, if they are well versed or qualified to provide such information. I should also be aware of my own perspectives and preconceived beliefs as that may cloud my distinction of bullshit from necessary, accurate, and true information. In addition, with this book, I have realized that bullshit is not just a word for dismissing an idea or a word for abuse, so I’ll be more conscious of when and where it is necessary to call something bullshit.