On Bullshit

by Harry Frankfurt Time

Donald Trump provides a robust example of someone who is, with respect to matters particularly relevant to the exercise of high political authority, neither well-informed nor especially intelligent. Moreover, even apart from these rather egregious cognitive deficiencies, much of what Trump says is—to put it mildly—quite unconvincing. This goes not only for his sometimes boorishly insulting characterizations of the personalities, behaviors, and even the physical features of others, but also for his bizarrely self-congratulatory claims concerning his own capacities, plans, and intentions.

It is generally easy to identify which of Trump’s assertions are, in one way or another, unworthy of belief. What is somewhat more difficult to establish is whether his unmistakably dubious statements are deliberate lies or whether they are just bullshit.

The distinction between lying and bullshitting is fairly clear. The liar asserts something which he himself believes to be false. He deliberately misrepresents what he takes to be the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, is not constrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. In making his assertion, he is indifferent to whether what he is says is true or false. His goal is not to report facts. It is, rather, to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.

When Trump said he observed thousands of people in Jersey City celebrating the destruction of the twin towers by dancing in the streets, it is clear enough he was lying. After all, there was a great deal of reliable testimony no such thing happened. Also, records of Trump’s earlier statements make it abundantly clear he lied when he recently said he knew nothing about David Duke or about the Ku Klux Klan. Further, in discussing U.S. medical costs since Barack Obama became president, Trump said “we have lousy health-care, where it’s going up 35, 45, 55 percent.”The truth is, as readily available public records show, medical premiums rose by an average of 5.8% a year since Obama took office, compared to 13.2% in the nine years prior.

However, it is often uncertain whether Trump actually cares about the truth of what he says. This makes it unclear whether his assertion is a lie or merely bullshit. Since a person does not lie unless he makes an assertion he himself takes to be false, we cannot properly say he is lying if he actually believes what he says.

For example, on May 5, 2016, Trump said: “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” This could hardly be anything other than bullshit. Does he have any real evidence about where the best tacos are, or was he just making it up? Does he really love Hispanic people? Both assertions come across—at least to me—as little more than hot air.

Consider, also, his pronouncement that millions of illegal immigrants will bedeported when he becomes president. This is probably also an instance of bullshit: surely, given the uncertainty of whether he would have both the authority and the means to do so, it’s likely (a) that Trump doesn’t actually have any settled intention to deport those millions and (b) that he doesn’t really care whether or not what he says is true. He most likely made that pronouncement merely in order to create certain expectations and impressions in the minds of his listeners. He wanted people to think of him as a person who would settle upon and carry out intentions like the one he declared to be his.

On the one hand, Trump makes false assertions, which he surely knows, or knows he could easily ascertain, to be false. On the other hand, he makes statements of whose truth he is uncertain—and he is indifferent to the fact that he doesn’t actually regard them as true. In the first case, he is telling a lie. In the second case, it’s bullshit.

Trump freely offers extravagant claims about his own talents and accomplishments. He maintains, for example, that he has the greatest memory in the world. This is farcically unalloyed bullshit. He also makes deceptive claims concerning his business experience. Some of these probably include ingredients both of bullshit and of lies. But his characterization of himself as an extraordinarily successful businessman is, in any event, open to question. Thus, his biographer, Michael d’Antonio, makes the following comment: “He tried to run an airline and failed at that. He tried to run casinos and failed four times. That’s not evidence of brilliance when it comes to operating a complex business.”

It is disturbing to find an important political figure who indulges freely both in lies and in bullshit. What is perhaps even more deeply disturbing is to discover an important segment of our population responding to so incorrigibly dishonest a person with such pervasively enthusiastic acceptance.


How to Spot Bullshit: A Primer by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt


We live in an age of truthiness. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word to describe the Bush administration’s tendency to fudge the facts in its favor.

Ten years after the American Dialect Society named it Word of the Year, former president Bush’s calendar is packed with such leisure activities as golf and painting portraits of world leaders, but “truthiness” remains on active duty.

It’s particularly germane in this administration, though politicians are far from its only practitioners.

Take global warming. NASA makes a pretty rock solid case for both its existence and our role in it:

97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

In view of such numbers, its understandable that a suburban Joe with a freezer full of factory-farmed beef and multiple SUVs in his garage would cling to the position that global warming is a lie. It’s his last resort, really.

But such self-rationalizations are not truth. They are truthiness.

Or to use the old-fashioned word favored by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, above: bullshit!

Frankfurt–a philosopher at Princeton and the author of On Bullshitallows bullshit artists are often charming, or at their very least, colorful. They have to be. Achieving their ends involves engaging others long enough to persuade them that they know what they’re talking about, when in fact, this is the opposite of the truth.

Speaking of opposites, Frankfurt maintains bullshit is a different beast from an out-and-out lie. The liar makes a specific attempt to conceal the truth by swapping it out for a lie.

The bullshit artist’s approach is far more vague. It’s about creating a general impression.

There are times when I admit to welcoming this sort of manure. As a maker of low budget theater, your honest opinion of any show I have Little Red Hen’ed into existence is the last thing I want to hear upon emerging from the cramped dressing room, unless you truly loved it.

I’d also encourage you to choose your words carefully when dashing a child’s dreams.

But when it comes to matters of public policy, and the public good, yes, transparency is best.

It’s interesting to me that filmmakers James Nee and Christian Britten transformed a portion of their learned subject’s thoughts into voiceover narration for a lightning fast stock footage montage. It’s diverting and funny, featuring such ominous characters as Nosferatu, Bill Clinton, Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, and Donald Trump, but isn’t it also the sort of misdirection sleight of hand at which true bullshitters excel?

Frankfurt expands upon his thoughts on bullshit in his aptly titled bestselling book, On Bullshit and its followup On Truth.

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