Rather than focus on the particulars, let’s elevate the discussion: Why are we being inundated with conflicting claims about what’s true?
Some claims are true. Others are mistruths. And a lot of them are … well … just bullshit.
A notable contributor to that literature, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, believes BS is more dangerous than lies. Why? BS contains an ounce or two of truth. It just might be true.
What else do we know about BS? Fundamentally it comes in the form of a claim. We know all about claims because we make and receive claims all the time, like this one: “Harvard is one of the best universities in the world.” That’s no BS, which means that claims can—and often are—true.
Here’s the dilemma facing America today. Did millions of people vote illegally in November? Of course they didn’t. But thousands—perhaps even millions—of Americans believe they did.
But problems can emerge when we accept claims uncritically. That can happen when assertions come from respected claims-makers. “Always treat people as you would like to be treated,” my mother told me. I believed her. It was good advice, too.
And there are examples in political life of claims-to-live-by. Take, for example, Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan, “Better Together!” Who could possibly disagree?
But Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again!” is quite different. A muck land of analytical delight—including a rich sub-text that speaks “in code”—that slogan is utterly problematic.
And here’s yet another angle on claims-making. It’s what Hillary Clinton said repeatedly during the Democratic primary: “I am a Progressive who gets things done.” That assertion includes two claims: I’m a Progressive. I get things done.
If you’re a Clinton supporter, you probably accepted the statement as true. But, if you’re a Bernie supporter, you may have interpreted Clinton’s message quite differently, perhaps this way: “She’s NOT one of us! And how dare she insinuate that Bernie is talk, no action!”
Why the difference? We know from research that people interpret a message through pre-existing and preferred understandings/preferences. It’s called The Confirmation Bias. Besides, there’s no uniform meaning of Progressive. And “what things” are getting done?
It would be bad enough if this kind of communication existed only in politics. The problem is that it’s ubiquitous—so much so that it’s dicey to take anything at face value when self-promotion is the intent. P.T. Barnum would be pleased.
Consider this example. I follow what universities communicate in branding-marketing campaigns. My favorite is a public university that claims its 25K+ students share a common set of saint-like qualities, “A Code,” they call it. Who promulgates it? The president. It’s pure BS.
But officials aren’t the only people who make fallacious claims. It has become a way of life for everyday people.
I bumped into a colleague the other day. He tried to get me to agree with him about how a situation needed to be handled. I listened incredulously because I had used a different (and humane) way to tackle the same issue. This guy’s intent? He wanted me to validate his approach. What BS!
BS is problematic in at last five ways. It’s devoid of self-evaluation. There isn’t space for critique. Alternative ways of thinking and doing aren’t included. BS is declarative—from somebody else to us—and it’s lathered with self-serving intent.
Just about all of us BS from time to time, but the real problem is when it becomes patterned behavior. From analyzing BS and observing bullshitters I believe chronic BS’ing is a witch’s brew: the urge to control, feelings of inadequacy/inferiority, unbridled need to win/beat the competition, mindlessness (in contrast to mindfulness), and amorality (commitment to whatever it takes).
Odds are you can put faces to the words I just wrote.
There’s so much BS these days it’s easy to become cynical. What’s the alternative?
First, we need to self-educate to make interpretations and judgments based on careful analysis drawn from quality sources. Second, we need to speak out against BS. It’s often difficult (and politically dicey) to do that, especially in the workplace. The challenge is to speak up without being done in. And, most importantly—for integrity sake—we need to avoid shoveling BS ourselves. Any definition of integrity involves being truthful and viewed as a trusted source.
Sadly, integrity is in short supply. Instead, too many people and organizations focus too much on what’s called impression management. What can we say and do in the moment to get optimal impact? There’s an overemphasis on promoting and Enhancing the Brand.
If we ratchet up the discussion to the societal level, then there’s no question that journalism for the public good is as important, if not more important, than ever. The “than ever” reference is the result of a president-elect who wants the American people to believe that journalists are unethical and problematic, even “scum.”
The press asks too many questions. The press wants evidence to support claims. So Trump calls out the press, even naming journalists whom he thinks has transgressed (also known as “doing their jobs”).
But here’s the dilemma facing America today. Did millions of people vote illegally in November? Of course they didn’t. But thousands—perhaps even millions—of Americans believe they did.