The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Why is there so much “bullshit” in public discourse' With all due recognition of the fact that bullshit, as a thing, may have different meanings in different cultures, the stunning simplicity of this question cannot disguise its importance. As citizens, we all feel frustrated by the quality of public utterances. Politicians routinely make claims that no one, including themselves, can quite believe. Intellectuals, who ought to know better, are routinely guilty of exaggerated hysteria. Government reports are often mendacious and confusing. Public policy debates seem to be premised on statistical arguments that prove the truth of the dictum that if you torture any statistic enough it will confess. Journalists seem to never quite follow a story till the whole truth, properly contextualized, emerges.
Careless speech, deceptive misrepresentation, twisted stories, tall claims, uncontextualized facts and ideological fantasies compel the most sober of us to describe most public discourse as bullshit.
There is perhaps no other word that is quite a substitute for bullshit. A distinguished philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, once wrote a great essay on the subject, arguing that bullshit should not be confused with lying. While lying is also often pervasive in politics, the effects of bullshit are more insidious and devastating. Bullshit is not quite lying, though it usually involves some deceptive misrepresentation; it is talk that we would in other contexts dismiss as “hot air,” something that communicates no new facts, feelings or analyses. Its truth depends not on conformity to the facts, but also simply on the fact that it has been uttered.
Much talk of this kind is harmless bluster, but its effects on public discourse can be corrosive. Bullshitting in public may be worse than lying for many reasons. Lying, to be successful, is premised upon two things. First the liar has to lie selectively and in specific contexts; if someone is revealed as a pathological liar, their ability to successfully get away with lies is diminished. Second, it is impossible for someone to lie unless they know the truth. At least a liar secretly keeps his eyes on the truth; he only has to deliberately distort it. Bullshit, however, is under no such constraint.
Bullshitters, unlike liars, are typically unconcerned with truth or falsehood. A liar at least knows that he is misdescribing reality; a bullshitter, by contrast, simply makes up statements, or picks up facts as and when they suit him. He is more corrosive because he does not really care about truth or falsity. The liar consciously does truth the dignity of rejecting it; the bullshitter pays no heed to truth at all.
For this reason, bullshitting is more corrosive to democracies than lying. Lying at least presupposes the distinction between true and false, and it is at least possible that someone might be able to tell the difference. But what do you counter bullshit with' The bullshitter is a person who is impervious to the whole concept of reality or truth. What do you say to such a person' Democracy is subverted less by lies than by bullshit. The extraordinary energy of political propaganda aims not simply at getting you to believe something that is false; it aims at getting you in a state where you do not care what truth or falsity is any more. It aims at creating a space for cynicism, where no one can be held accountable because there is no such thing.
Politics, under such circumstances will be partisan and shrill. Partisan, because the whole idea of a neutral adjudication does not make sense when you have given up on truth; shrill, because the only way to settle a contest is by shouting louder, since there are no facts of the matter. We are therefore free to make up whatever we please. The entire edifice of our public discourse, from the maniacal ranting of Narendra Modi to the illusory bluster of Laloo Yadav, from the self-aggrandizing claims of Jayalalithaa to the mendaciousness of our prime minister are all designed to this effect: creating a society where we do not know what to believe, whom to believe and when to believe.
At the end of investigations of riots, charges of corruption, commissions of inquiry, joint parliamentary committees, we all end up somewhere in the following territory — either we all succumb to the Rashomon effect (“There is no truth, only perspectives from which a story is told”), or to something as unhelpful as “We know everybody is guilty”. Both responses are politically disempowering. But both suggest that the pervasive effects of bullshit have got to us. We do not care about the truth any more.
Why is there so much bullshit' This is not a question that admits of any easy answers. Of course, private bullshitting, the kind that goes on in adda or gup sessions, can be relatively benign. At least, it stretches our imagination. One supposition, however, is that ironically, it is the surfeit of information that modern democracies produce which makes us wary of even trying to care about the truth. Who can sift through this overload of information and narratives'
The net result is that the hold of reality on us becomes shaky. Some argue that pervasive bullshit is a sign that societies are deeply divided and characterized by a lack of trust. Such societies cannot evolve common mechanisms, impartial institutions for adjudicating the truth. Hence bullshit prevails more easily. It is easy to dismiss someone else’s critique as motivated simply by sectarian concerns. So we don’t see others as offering arguments, only partisan cackle.
It may also be that much of our education ill disposes us towards boring things like facts. Another supposition, particularly relevant to us, is that a lot of bullshit is produced when people are required to talk without knowing what they are talking about. If your knowledge is less extensive than a subject demands, you will produce bullshit. It is not a surprise, therefore, that politicians produce unduly large amounts of it. By the dint of their authority they are anointed experts in every subject, expected to inaugurate every seminar from animal husbandry to Vedic philosophy.
But in a culture which encourages people to constantly pontificate on matters they know little of — judges on the intricacy of pollution controls, bureaucrats on education, politicians on history, and opinion-mongers on everything — you are likely to get a lot of that undesirable stuff. Finally, we may bullshit simply because we have convinced ourselves that what we say and think is relatively inconsequential anyway. One suspects much of the careless talk and playing fast and loose with facts in private conversations come from a sense of inconsequence. But to think that bullshit is harmless is, well, bullshit — especially in a democracy. But one thing is certain: the prevalence of bullshit reveals more truths about us than we care to admit.