We are living in an era of unprecedented bullshit production. Public discourse has become a cloaca, clogged with the phony rhetoric of political leaders, advertisers, corporate executives, pundits and celebrities. The prevalence of bullshit in our culture is pandemic; never have so many said so much and meant so little.
I’m sure that you all have your favourite examples of this phenomenon, and that there’s one particular verbal turd that sets you off every time you hear it. My favourite is, ‘your call is important to us.’ This exemplary piece of bullshit gets demonstrably phonier every time you hear it. If your call was important to them, you wouldn’t still be hearing the recorded tones of that voicemail lady who sounds like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. If your call was important, someone would answer the phone.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
There are two main types of bullshit: simple bullshit and complex bullshit. Simple bullshit is all that stuff that is too good to be true, like ads and sales pitches and loving form letters from large companies. Simple bullshit also includes all things dumbed down, like those blips of fluff you see on a cable news crawl.
Complex bullshit is also known as bafflegab or jargon, and is the lingua franca of modern bureaucracies, both public and private. Any organisation’s first defence against having to do anything is reader-resistant prose – equal parts boring and baffling – with clause after clause of boilerplate and loopholes. Just try reading your mortgage or your tax legislation.
Simple bullshit and complex bullshit are Siamese twins. The ad that encouraged you to bank at your particular house of usury is simple bullshit. The contracts you sign there – without ever really reading them, since they aren’t really readable – are full of complex bullshit.
It is also important to note that there are very different orders of magnitude when it comes to bullshit. We are all implicated in the mass production of bullshit, as minor producers of our own merde. But not all bullshit is bad. There is a level of polite, friendly bullshit that is merely a social lubricant. Nobody needs to know how bad their hair is, or how much weight they’ve gained.
However, if your secretary is shredding documents by night or you have yet to visit the country where all your money lives, you have probably concocted a dump of inordinate size.
Most of us feel like we are excellent bullshit detectors, and we marvel at the terminally cretinous who believe ads and vote for jerks and buy crap. But this ability to spot bullshit is not sufficient to stop bullshit. We may grumble, but few are those who boycott or protest or complain to the manager. Why bother? Resistance is futile. We don’t just accept bullshit; we expect it. Bullshit thrives on the soft bigotry of low expectations, to borrow a Bushism.
There are a couple of other factors that have helped accelerate and increase bullshit production. The first is the explosion of mass media technologies like television and the internet, which have provided new audiences and outlets for bullshit. The second is a shift in our political culture. The most consistent theme in politics since the 1980s is the valorisation of private interest, and denigration of the public sector. Reagan insisted that government was the problem, and markets were the solution. Iron Maggie went so far as to declare ‘society’ itself some hippy-dippy liberal chimera – there was no such thing, only individuals. Even Third Way types like Clinton and Blair adopted these same themes and policies.
This self-interest speak is by no means confined to politics, and is also evident in advertising, pop culture, self-help, and the shift towards softer, fluffier journalism. There’s nothing wrong with self-interest or free markets, but an overwhelming emphasis on the two has certainly aided and abetted bullshit production. The more self-interested you are, the less you care about a public good like the truth. And the free market is lucrative, fun and powerful precisely because it is the Great Relativiser, happy to cater to the lewd or the prude, and to resurrect the old dogmas as new product lines. Money doesn’t care whether you are buying cocaine or Bibles.
Not all commercial speech is bullshit, but a lot of bullshit is commercial speech. No ad ever claims a product is ‘perfectly adequate’. Every new snack, sneaker and prescription drug is proclaimed greater than the last, in a feedback loop of ever-increasing hyperbole. Since everything advertising speaks of is great, nothing is good anymore.
Though the business community insists that it has the right to regulate itself, and free-market friendly governments have been quick to agree to this, recent corporate scandals have shown us that some titans of the business world are just barons of bullshit. But don’t call the bottoming-out of a stock market a crash. No, it’s a correction. Mass sackings are similarly transformed, via press release euphemese, into bold restructuring plans. Cooked books became accounting irregularities, just like your service charges are convenience fees.
When the Enron and Worldcom dudes were finally called to account for their bullshit, they continued to bullshit, claiming they knew nothing, or recalled nothing, about that whole making-millions-of-bucks thing. One of the Enron defendants even had the brass balls to request that the piffling remaining funds of the company he despoiled go to his legal defence fund, the fiscal equivalent of killing your parents and asking for mercy because you’re an orphan.
Granted, the Enron types are the minority. And while the public may distrust overpaid CEOs, this scepticism about business is exceeded by cynicism about government. Politicians are pretty much synonymous with bullshit. There are some political scripts that seem to transcend party affiliation or nation. No leader admits that they backed a bill for the buckets of campaign cash flowing into our ostensibly democratic regimes; instead, they make oleaginous speeches about the benefits for the good people of Town X. No leader ever lays claim to a bad plan or crummy decision. Instead they blame something external, and preferably sweeping, like market forces, changed circumstances, or the enemy du jour.
One of the reasons politicians persist in talking bullshit is that the media continues to parrot it. The media have a major role to play when it comes to bullshit production: they can let it slide, or make sure that it hits the fan. And while the media is still quick to insist that it is on our side, all too often airtime is squandered on trifles. Thousands of journalists from all over the world converged on the Wacko Jacko trial to film the two minutes he entered the building with his entourage and his parasol handler, and wasted the rest of the day speculating as to whether he was a molester or merely a freak. This is hardly a late-breaking question. We suffer from no shortage of newsworthy events, but the news has gotten dumber, louder, quicker and flashier.
I wish I could leave you with some hopeful predictions or practical solutions. I cannot. I’d be bullshitting you if I did. I am not a problem solver. I am a crank. And I do not see the bullshit pandemic abating any time soon. As long as politicians think it’s what the voters want, and businesses think consumers like it, and the media thinks that it gets the ratings, there will only be more bullshit.
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