Clichés — that is, political rhetoric — hide truth. All of them do. Take for example the cliché that there’s a line between the truth and a lie. There is no such line.
Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt made the point forcefully in his short, bestselling book, “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt did not use the word pejoratively; he tried to nail it down.
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” Frankfurt began. “Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. … In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.”
Frankfurt offered as an example college students’ late-night bullshit sessions, in which they throw out propositions without regard for their truth or falsity. They are just ideas, something to amuse us.
A defining element of a bullshit session is that we do not care, for the moment, whether our propositions are true or false. For Frankfurt, this is the difference between lies and bullshit.
We tell lies with the intent to deceive someone. Bullshit does not care whether it’s true or not. Bullshit erases the lines between truth and lies, if ever there were such lines.
In this sense, bullshit underlies everything in the Trump administration. It explains the numerous occasions on which President Trump contradicts his own statements on important issues.
Trump doesn’t care whether his statements are true or not.
Look at the number of times he has done this — told us, in essence, that his previous statements were lies.
Trump tacitly acknowledges that all of his statements are bullshit.
Consider the recent White House diktat prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using seven words: fetus, vulnerable, diversity, transgender, evidence-based, science-based and entitlement.
This Stalinist order, revealed by The Washington Post, transcends the bounds of truth or falsehood. It is an attempt to create an alternate universe where neither truth nor falsehood exist.
What is a scientist to do — what are any of us to do — when forbidden to use the word fetus? Or vulnerable?
The prohibition does not change reality, which remains the same no matter what words we use. The prohibition has nothing to do with truth or falsehood. It’s bullshit.
Consider too former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, who quit the company with jillions of dollars, then criticized it, and himself, for helping to build “a world of ‘no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation.’”
Facebook is one of the major disseminators of bullshit today. With more than 1 billion subscribers, Facebook promulgates more bullshit than anyone or anything else in the world except China.
Facebook promulgates more bullshit than Russia and the United States. And — pardon my opinion here — Facebook is as vile, deceptive and intrusive as all of those countries combined.
Don’t look for me on Facebook. But it’ll find me. It’ll help you find me too, though I’ve never signed up for its bullshit.
In this world, the one we live in, there are no lines between truth and falsehood.
Worse, millions of people will tell you today that there is no difference between the truth and a lie. And they believe that.
Thanks, Facebook! Thanks, Russia, China and the United States!
We live in the reign of bullshit. And that’s the truth.