Long before it was fashionable to write books whose titles include profanity, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an extended essay On Bullsh*t. Written in 1986, it is as current as ever, explaining why male cow excrement is a fitting metaphor for how Political Correctness spreads like manure, fertilizing our social landscape while carrying with it a noxious stench. Thanks to its ubiquitous nature, we grow wearing of pinching our noses and eventually let go allowing it to saturate our minds. Case in point—the recent scandal of sexual impropriety has shown not only that we have been holding our noses to it, but that we may in fact have forgotten how to breathe properly. It is in that spirit, that I hope to end the bullsh*t by offering an introduction and application of Frankfurt’s work.
When I was in college, we used to play a card game called BS. It was like Uno, except, rather than picking up cards when you did not have anything to put down, you would attempt to bluff your way out of it. If another player thought you were bluffing then he would call BS and whoever was right became the owner of the pile. The really good players were skilled at bluffing that they were bluffing, calling out the wrong number (which was really the right number), thus making it really hard to know what the player actually believed.
BS and Indifference
Nostalgic as I am for that game, it is relevant because it is illustrative of what real BS is like. It is not really lying, but a form of bluffing. It is merely an attempt to represent yourself as a certain kind of person. Whether you are really that way is secondary at best, really inconsequential—it is only the appearance that matters. As Frankfurt says, BS is really short of lying because it doesn’t really care what the truth is only how what you say makes you appear to be. Its indifference to the truth makes it, in a certain sense, worse than lying because at least a lie pays a certain deference to the truth, even if it is still trying to deny it.
BS is not so much that someone gets things wrong, but that they are not really even trying to get things right. The feigned conviction is not grounded in either a belief that what you are saying is true nor, as with a lie, in the belief that it is not true. This indifference to the truth is really the essence of BS. In fact we even have a special word for it—Political Correctness. BS is at the heart of Political Correctness. Whether or not I actually believe X is wrong or not is inconsequential—only that I say the things that make me appear to think it is wrong. If tomorrow the court of public opinion changes then I will spout my BS to the contrary.
Frankfurt uses the example of the man leading a July 4th celebration standing up and giving a patriotic speech. Whether the man is a patriot or not does not matter, his only goal is to appear patriotic because the setting demands it. The man may be, and probably is, indifferent. As the BS spreads so does the indifference. All of the mouth breathing leads to brains that have been deprived of oxygen and no longer know what or why they believe certain things. They simply become parrots repeating what someone else has said and keeping up appearances.
The BS Meter
The BS meter is maxed out with the latest sexual impropriety scandal. For years Hollywood and Washington, as hubs of US power, were also seedbeds of exploitation. Once a few women had the courage to speak up, the BS starting flowing. Now to be clear, I am not saying they aren’t telling the truth. I am sure the overwhelming majority of them are and that there are any number of victims who won’t speak up. What I am saying is the “outraged” response. One day Actor X is hitting Twitter saying all the PC things. He doesn’t believe a word of it because the next day we find out he is just as guilty. Next day Senator Y is condemning Actor X and it turns out there are pictures of him exploiting another woman. Just as sure as tomorrow will bring another outing, there will be the accompanying BS. BS kills conviction and once the next scandal hits, the problem creeps back into the shadows.
How do I know this? Because it isn’t just Actor X and Senator Y that are guilty of it. We are all complicit. We may talk about how horrible sexual exploitation is, but it is all BS. Take a look at your favorite news web site today and glance at the stories. You will see a story about Al Franken, Roy Moore, and will also find one about some young female teacher arrested for sexual encounters with a teen boy. Franken and Moore will pass but each day brings another story of a woman (usually a teacher) being arrested for a rendezvous with a male (underage) student. The numbers are increasing (latest available data, collected in 2014, showed that a third of nearly 800 student-teacher sex prosecutions involved women) and we pretend it is not a problem. But rather than outrage at this blatant abuse we click on each story to see the mug shot of the latest Mrs. Robinson with the accompanying Facebook or Instagram “sexy” photo. Barstool Sports (BS), who just got their own SiriusXM radio station, even came out with a Sex Scandal Starting Lineup of the hottest teachers in 2016. BS needs to keep the cycle of BS going by appealing to “guys.” After all, what guy didn’t fantasize being with some hot teacher at some point? Somehow without any basis in truth, these same guys who have bought BS’s BS are supposed to turn around and not sexually exploit women. BS is dizzying if nothing else.
The examples grow exponentially. What about the BS of equality? Or the BS of freedom? Or the BS of tolerance? Even the Church is not immune with the BS masquerading as ecumenism. BS has a funny way of infecting an entire culture.
In our collegiate game of BS there was only one way to win. Once you got down to one card the other players would always call BS to keep you from winning. The only way you could win is if you told the truth—that is you actually had the next card in the sequence. It is only the truth that can set us free from cloud of BS and in the midst of a cultural crisis we as Catholics have a unique gift to offer the world. We must preach the Good News of who we are as men and women, equal and not, and who we are in light of Christ. Christ came so we would not have to deal with BS any longer.