In 2005, Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, published On Bullshit. It's a very small book about the nature of BS, how it's different from lying, and why we're all compelled to bullshit on occasion. I was captivated by three insights that Frankfurt shares in his work and how these insights mirror what I found in my recent study on belonging. My research makes it clear that true belonging doesn't require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. Because the yearning for belonging is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging but often barriers to it. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of authenticity. Bullshit presents a unique problem because most of us struggle to maintain our authenticity and integrity when engaging in debates and discussions driven by emotion rather than shared understanding of facts.
The first of Frankfurt's insights is the difference between lying and bullshitting: Lying is a defiance of the truth, and bullshitting is a wholesale dismissal of the truth. "By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are," Frankfurt writes. This changes the nature of debate — and calls into question the opportunity for productive discourse. As Alberto Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle states, "The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it."
Second, it's advantageous to recognize how we often rely on bullshitting when we feel compelled to talk about things we don't understand. Frankfurt explains how the widespread conviction that many of us share about needing to comment or weigh in on every single issue around the globe leads to increased levels of BS. It is crazy to me that so many of us feel we need to have fact-based opinions on everything from what's happening in Sudan and Vietnam to the effects of climate change in the Netherlands and immigration policy in California.
We don't even bother being curious anymore because somewhere, someone on "our side" has a position. In a "fitting in" culture — at home, at work, or in our larger community — curiosity is seen as weakness and asking questions equates to antagonism rather than being valued as learning. On the other hand, curiosity is foundational and seen as brave in true belonging cultures.
Last, Frankfurt argues that the contemporary spread of bullshit also has a deeper source: our being skeptical and denying that we can ever know the truth of how things really are. He argues that when we give up on believing that there are actual truths that can be known and shared with observable knowledge, we give up on the notion of objective inquiry. It's like we just collectively shrug our shoulders and say, "Whatever. It's too hard to get to the truth, so if I say it's true, that's good enough."
Frankfurt's astute observation of where that leads us feels prophetic in 2017. He argues that once we decide that it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, we simply resort to being true to ourselves. This, to me, is the birthplace of one of the great bullshit problems of our time: the "You're either with us or against us" argument.
If you're not with me, then you're my enemy
One of the biggest drivers of bullshit today is the proliferation of the belief that "You're either with us or you're against us." It's an emotional line that we hear everyone, from politicians to movie heroes and villains, invoke on a regular basis. Well-intentioned or not, 95 percent of the time, it's an emotional and passionate rendering of bullshit.