Bullshit, as a topic, is getting a lot of attention lately. Renegade magicians Penn & Teller just started their new season with the cable series Bullshit!, in which they debunk such energetic disseminators as PETA and the recycling movement. Jon Stewart has become an enormous star for doing the same thing to politicians. The word itself is heard more and more frequently.
The reason is simply that we confront more bullshit every day, and it appears the tipping point has been reached. We’re fighting back, usually in colorful fashion.
But now the academics have gotten into the act. Maybe they should stay out.
A new book, On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt, who’s described in the book as a “renowned moral professor” and professor emeritus at Princeton University, has created a mini-stir in the publishing world.
Notice the use of the word “moral” as an adjective. He’s not a professor teaching morals but a “moral professor.” There it is: bullshit.
The good professor actually tries to define — seriously — bullshit. That’s no bullshit. He works hard at explaining the difference between lies and bullshit; misrepresentations and bullshit; deception and bullshit.
But is this really necessary? We know all the nuances. Anyone out there who doesn’t know the difference between a lie and bullshit? More importantly, does anyone really care?
When George Washington confessed that he cut down the cherry tree, stating he could not tell a lie, he could have said, “I’m no bullshitter, Mommy and Daddy, I did it.”
“Georgie,” his parents might have replied, “we’re delighted you told the truth, but you are a bullshitter. You’re confessing because you know you would have been caught. But you’re good and we expect big things from you in politics.”
Bullshit is bullshit, professor. Come off your high academic horse. The eminent and late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said while discussing pornography: I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.
Even without citing such legal precedent and applying it to bullshit, we can say without reservation that we know it when we hear it.
Further, it’s bullshit to call this a book. It’s little more than 9,000 words. This bullshit article — we mean this article on bullshit — alone is about 600 words long.
Here was the opportunity for the good professor to have some fun — as the title implies — but he ruins it by trying to define bullshit as though such an effort is worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the process, the professor proves he’s pretty good at the subject himself. Example:
“But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake.”
A sentence like that is the very definition of bullshit. No more needs to be written. But there’s plenty more anyway.
So we’d like to bestow the title “bullshit artist” on Professor Frankfurt, but he doesn’t really qualify. You have to know your bullshitting to deserve such a lofty title. And a good bullshitter takes pride in what he does.
Unlike the duck who is what he walks and talks like, Professor Frankfurt walks, talks and, yes, writes like a bullshitter. He just isn’t one.