Bullshit, Belief, and Binaries
A brief history of concepts of self-deception would have to include concepts such as false consciousness, bad faith, and cognitive dissonance, but if these sound too complicated, try bullshit. What worries me is that bullshitting has gone viral, in a sense—becoming an diarrheal epidemic that can’t be stopped by any political wall, such as the walls around the right or the left. I’m worried that the bullshit is seeping through. I’m worried about what social work professor Brené Brown calls “the bullshit-incivility cycle,” like when someone spouts total nonsense and, exasperated, we respond with anger if we respond at all.
An alternative that I’ve been discussing lately comes from the poet and novelist Sina Queyras, who once wrote, “I don’t argue any more, I just take up space.” If the right/wrong structure of an argument or debate isn’t appropriate, then you might be able to avoid the argument—not to be evasive but to create a positive alternative.
(I worry sometimes that a blog is an attention-seeker that "take[s] up space" in the sense of squeezing out other voices that should be listened to more than mine is, but this "space" on the internet is theoretically infinite, and I know from the analytics of my modest site traffic that I'm not, at present, at risk of stealing a spotlight.)
Queyras goes on to criticize an us/them binary, and elsewhere Brown criticizes an all guns/no guns binary, and so I have to admit that I’ve started with a binary, right and left, an idea of something divided by a wall—but it’s not how I’ll conclude. I think bullshit damages binaries but has a dangerously totalizing effect nonetheless.
Jeet Heer’s most recent article in The New Republic turns attention back to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 book, On Bullshit, which Heer uses to understand the American president Donald Trump and the destabilization of truth.
(Brown has been reading Frankfurt’s book, too, which has become an unexpected touchstone for understanding the Trump era. I bought On Bullshit for my dad on his 60th birthday in the year it came out, and we were thinking of the American president George W. Bush, whose misunderstandings seem so quaint now. Heer reports that the fact-checkers at PolitiFact calculate that 70% of Trump’s assertions are false, mostly false, or total “pants on fire” lies.)
I am more interested in thinking about bullshit in the context of the #MeToo and #IBelieve movement, one that has supported women in the difficult work of making an allegation of sexual harassment or assault against men in powerful positions. This work is difficult partly because, in the legal system, very few of the accused men are convicted despite the likelihood and widespread belief that they have committed the alleged act; and because, in the court of public opinion, the backlash has included death threats and public ridicule amounting sometimes to defamation.
Leaning to the right of the false binary that I set up earlier, we have pundit Christie Blatchford cautioning against the over-extension of #MeToo and #IBelieve, though I can’t see how we could (except in rare cases) do too much to resist sexism and patriarchy when both seem so clear and present and problematic. With customary snark directed at bleeding-heart liberals, Blatchford writes: “one of the guiding principles of #MeToo and #IBelieve is that every person who makes such an allegation is a noble truth-teller, and that what matters most is how the self-proclaimed victim feels.” The language here is absolutist: “every person,” “what matters most.” In reality, the nuance “matters” too, but here the language implies or idealizes a simple distinction between truth and falsehood: a binary.
Leaning left, writer Erika Thorkelson objects to Margaret Atwood’s support for the accused (if I may borrow the legal term even though the case is not a criminal one), and she criticizes Atwood’s insistence in using her reputation to shape the discourse around #MeToo: “Really listening requires… you to soften and let go of the fear, the urge to argue, and the instinct to control the narrative. It takes a comfort with silence and a willingness to accept that your turn to talk may never come, that what’s happening might not be about you at all.” In other words, some people have to shut up (Margaret Atwood). But those other words are my words, possibly in the voice of Blatchford, not one I really want to imitate, and Thorkelson's desire for better listeners is one that I share deeply; it's an ideal of teaching and learning.
Still, these examples from the loosely defined right and left share a lack of faith in people with different opinions. Blatchford implies that the “noble truth-teller” may well be a liar, and Thorkelson suggests that others have no “turn,” no valid opinion, no credibility— really, no reason to be believed.
And so, we believe what we want. The Economist, hardly a neutral magazine, nevertheless respects a difference between fact and fiction here: "In 1986 Ronald Reagan insisted that his administration did not trade weapons for hostages with Iran, before having to admit a few months later that: ‘My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.’”
Reagan wasn't bullshitting; he was admitting to a lie but spinning it as a moral lie, a lie told for the right reasons, the reasons in his "heart." Because I’ve been studying the genre of the Western, and because Reagan was “the Cowboy President” (having acted in so many Westerns before he went into politics), I’ve been thinking of how we normally think of the Western as a politically conservative genre, and how the usual plot of a Western culminates in a moment of cathartic violence when the hero makes a snap judgment—supposedly a moment of moral clarity—to confirm that the bad guy is so bad that he should die.
Reagan might have won over some Democrats with his admission about Iran, but Heer claims that “Trump’s bullshitting is integral to his success in fomenting tribalism and polarization." I agree, and I would add that Trump’s twittering is encouraging this “polarization.” I’ve read suggestions that social media today have a conservative bias because short forms such as the tweet encourage snap judgments and discourage reflection.
What if, if we’re all so confident that no one can be right, and if we’re all willing to make the snap judgment and the quick draw of moral assessment, then we’re all on the right?
Although bullshit has, in a way, damaged the binary of right and left, along with the binary of truth and falsehood, in another way it hypes up the binary or wall more and more. Shouting down others, for example, can foment radicalism while, as journalist Neil Macdonald pointed out yesterday, generating celebrity for reprehensible people and their ideas.
But the way we often talk or shout means in theory that the wall between left and right doesn’t even exist; it’s simply snap judgment after snap judgment, because it’s easier and less exhausting, less driving toward burn-out. The challenge we have to meet when dealing with bullshit or a political opponent is always going to be patience (but also determined work), even if it is not fair to ask for patience from people who deserve justice now and 150+ years ago.
Blatchford refers to “the current super-heated temperature of the culture.” Indeed, I want to yell—at least half ironically—like Señor Mister Love Daddy in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: “Y’all take a chill. You need to cool that shit out”!
There are lots of good reasons to scream, but being the hot shit isn't one of them.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Bullshit, Belief, and Binaries." Publicly Interested, 21 Mar. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
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Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.