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On bullshit and Donald Trump

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

In this video, Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, talks about what bullshit is and how dangerous it is to society.

The reason why there’s so much bullshit I think is that people just talk. If they don’t talk, they don’t get paid. The advertiser wants to gain sales. The politician wants to gain votes. Now, that’s ok but they have to talk about things that they don’t really know much about. So, since they don’t have anything really valid to say, they just say whatever they think will interest the audience, make it appear they know what they’re talking about. And what comes out is bullshit.

The bullshitter is more creative. He’s not submissive. It’s not important to him what the world really is like. What’s important to him is how he’d like to represent himself. He takes a more adventurous and inventive attitude towards reality, which may be sometimes very colorful, sometimes amusing, sometimes it might produce results that are enjoyable. But it’s also very dangerous.

It’s at this point that the video cuts to Donald Trump, who is the Lionel Messi of bullshitting; it is his singular dazzling gift. He cultivates convenient facts and deliberately remains ignorant of inconvenient ones so as to be most effective. As Frankfurt notes, bullshit is a serious threat to the truth because it’s not the opposite of truth…it cannot be refuted like a lie can:

Liars attempt to conceal the truth by substituting something for the truth that isn’t true. Bullshit is not a matter of trying to conceal the truth, it is a matter of trying to manipulate the listener, and if the truth will do, then that’s fine and if the truth won’t do, that’s also fine. The bullshitter is indifferent to the truth in a way in which the liar is not. He’s playing a different game.

It is Trump’s indifference to the truth that makes him so effective and so powerful. Much of what I read from people who oppose Trump attempts to counter his rhetoric with facts. That hasn’t worked and is not going to work. The truth is not the antidote for bullshit. So how do you defeat the bullshitter? This has been a genuine problem for his political opponents thus far. Frankfurt doesn’t offer any advice in the video (perhaps his book does?), and I’m at a loss as well, but I do know that factual refutation will not make any difference. I hope someone figures it out soon though.

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