When asked, “What makes you angry about the world?” a long list of depressing, fearful situations came to mind. Bullshit was at the center of it all.
What is Bullshit?
It’s neither true nor false, but it is misleading. It’s rooted at the intersection of selfishness, excuse and ego. The bullshitter’s principal aim is to make an impression on whomever they’re bullshitting. It’s about personal advancement and advantage to the bullshitter’s agenda, whether influencing behavior, appearing right, cooler, smarter, etc.
There’s a fine line between bullshitting and lying. The liar must know the truth of the matter of discussion to better conceal it from those they are deceiving. While lies often result in personal gain, the main purpose is hiding the truth. The bullshitter may not even have any truth to hide.
Example: presidential candidate number one makes promises to get people to vote for them. Once elected, they don’t fulfill those promises. We can’t call them liars because they weren’t hiding the truth, just spouting bullshit. Presidential candidate number two had sexual relations with a woman. He claims he did not. He is lying.
Our culture of bullshit
One of the most remarkable features of our culture is that there’s so much bullshit. People have an uncanny ability to not only accept bullshit, but spread it. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes our share. We use it to justify behavior, manipulate others and fool ourselves. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon hasn’t aroused much concern. But over the years it’s mutated into a dangerous and contagious virus that affects every facet of society and our personal lives. We’re all at the mercy of its wrath and we’ve reached peak bullshit. Former presidential speechwriter Jon Lovett said it wonderfully:
“One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We’re drowning in it. We’re drowning in partisan rhetoric that’s just true enough not to be a lie, in industry-sponsored research, in social media’s imitation of human connection, in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything.”
Comedian George Carlin also weighed in on bullshit: “You know, whenever you are exposed to advertising in this country you realize all over again that America’s leading industry is still the manufacture, distribution, packaging and marketing of bullshit—high quality bullshit, world class, designer bullshit, to be sure. Hospital tested clinically proven bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. Bullshit is everywhere. It’s rampant. Parents are full of shit, teachers are full of shit, clergymen are full of shit, law enforcement people are full of shit. The entire country is completely full of shit.”
It’s no stretch to say every elected leader in the history of this country (and most others) has been full of shit. It doesn’t matter whether they fly with the left or the right wing, in the red or blue ideological box. It’s no wonder we’re dumbfounded by the polarized, bastardized mess America’s social landscape has become. The talking heads ring out: “Believe my bullshit!” The opponent replies, “No! Believe my bullshit!” The bandwagon swallows bullshit like their life depends on it. And there we are feeling forced to make a shitty decision, lest we become social outcasts. We don’t even know who or what to believe, but we feel we must believe someone, something. Often when we do, we later learn it was bullshit.
Despite the high concentration of bullshit in the U.S.A., this isn’t an American problem. Narrow-minded, self-serving bullshit is a human problem. Furthermore, the bullshit epidemic is not just a dysfunction of mass-society. It’s a dysfunction of how individuals relate to one another, and ultimately ourselves. We bullshit in service of the ego to trick ourselves into accepting false truths. This sneaky self-deception lurks deep in the subconscious. Rather than face the truth, we just take in some sexy bullshit because it feels better than truth. And let’s face it, we crave feeling good perhaps more than anything else. That’s the American dream, isn’t it?
The psychology of bullshit
Because our minds create bullshit, our minds can overcome it, at least a little, if we understand it. First of all, we have weakness for bullshit written in our DNA. Psychologists use fancy terms like Heuristics to explain this. These are mental shortcuts that help us solve problems and make judgements quickly. The availability heuristic, for example: when posed with a problem we use our first available thoughts to form a conclusion. If those thoughts are based on bullshit repeated on TV, radio, movies and in our social circles, we’re more likely to believe that that shit is true—even when presented with facts that prove otherwise. These rule-of-thumb shortcuts shorten decision making time, which is great when facing a tiger. But when sorting through bullshit to choose who to vote for, what to spend money on, which side is “right” and which is “wrong,” these shortcuts lead to errors in judgement and all kinds of biases.
For example, confirmation bias: Protecting our precious opinion by seeking information that confirms it while ignoring information that disproves it. The marriage of politics and media is notorious for confirmation bias. This makes it difficult to see alternatives. In other words, it narrows our minds. This cycle of willful ignorance has a real and powerful affect on us all whether we know it or like it or not. This perpetuates our self-deception and culture of bullshit.
There’s all kinds of high level, academic bullshit concepts. At Princeton University, Harry Frankfurt even wrote research paper on the subject. No bullshit, check it out. Heuristics, rhetoric, biases, logical fallacies, stereotyping, they all work in the mind and spread by communication. A psychosocial virus. Professors even teach the psychology of bullshit. When pressured, afraid, or emotional, we’re more likely to accept bullshit and act on it. That’s money. That’s power. That’s why there’s a heavy appeal to emotion, rather than logic, in commercials and media. Well, my friends, bullshit and be bullshitted no longer.
How to overcome the culture of bullshit
The moral of the story is to question everything, seek the truth and speak the truth. But to do that, we must know how. If you can’t bullshit a bullshitter, as the saying goes, neither can you bullshit a strong thinker. So the first step is learning the art, science and philosophy of critical thinking. We must understand why people bullshit, how people bullshit, who bullshits, and when it’s most likely to be used against us. We must learn how our minds process this tidal wave of shit.
I’m no expert on critical thinking. For now, I’ll refer you to this source: 9 Strategies for critical thinking in everyday life.
What do you think about BS? Leave a comment and join the conversation.