Small enough to fit in your pocket and brief enough to be read in an hour, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press) is a serious attempt to arrive at a basic definition of a much overused word. Author Harry G. Frankfurt, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, takes a systematic approach, first determining what the word isn’t before concluding what it most likely is. His most important distinction is the difference between bullshit and lying. The liar must know the truth in order to deliberately counter it, but the essence of bullshit is an indifference to the way things are. The bullshitter is interested in projecting an image of himself — what’s true and what’s false is beside the point.
Frankfurt’s essay would be just another clever linguistic treatise if it weren’t so relevant. Since so many people feel that it’s their democratic right, if not duty, to have an opinion on almost everything, much public discourse these days is laced with bullshit. Sincerity is the new substitute for factual correctness; people don’t judge an assertion by its probability but rather by the emotional heft with which it’s put forth. Although Frankfurt only makes two very brief references to politics in his book, its relevance to the language and delivery of the current regime and, more importantly, the parroting language and gullibility of its champions needn’t be spelled out. Reality retreats in the face of words seemingly spoken from the heart. And, as Frankfurt concludes, "insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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