Notes on a Bullshit Class

I’m teaching a course this quarter called “How to Combat Online Bullshit.” I have three students in it, at least one of whom is a deep thinker, and all three of whom are genuinely interested in the topic.

In preparation for the class, I’ve found just an ungodly number of resources on the Internet, thanks to Pres. Trump’s somewhat casual relationship with what most people call “truth,” the proliferation of Russian-generated “fake news” during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, and the renewed commitment of most schools to teach students to be critical consumers of both corporate dominated and independently generated media. I read a lot of those resources, bookmarked a bunch more, and started scanning for common threads.

I also read an academic treatise titled On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfort, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, to provide a more theoretical perspective on the topic. Frankfort argues that “bullshit” differs from “lies” in that lies have some concern for the truth (if only to better integrate with it as a lie), whereas bullshit could not care less about what is true and what is not — it’s only motive is to convey an impression of the bullshitter, to provide the listener with the understanding that regardless of whether the bullshitter is correct, he or she is, at the very least, being sincere, and his or her sincerity is more important than whether he or she is right.

One can’t help but think of Pres. Trump again, whose every public appearance seems designed to convey a sense of authenticity and sincerity but whose every word and action only demonstrates the opposite. He doesn’t care if you fact-check him, because it doesn’t matter if he’s right. What matters is that he believes it, and that his audience believe he wouldn’t lie to them about that.

But my students have more to worry about than bullshit. An entire industry of willful miscommunication exists: headlines, articles, videos, tweets, Instagram photos, fake friend requests…there’s an entire economic niche of bot programmers, media copywriters, religious hucksters, and political malefactors whose financial futures depend on their ability to trick other human beings into believing things that are demonstrably false.

As media consumers, we charge face-first into these well-funded armies of bullshitters and liars each time we turn on the news or scan our feeds for headlines. If the truth is to be victorious, we must fight the bullshit and lies with everything we’ve got, and that doesn’t just mean rage and fervor; it also means with an understanding of how beliefs work, and how opinions can best be changed. It means respecting the dignity of people who have been hornswoggled, and sympathizing with the difficulty of admitting that one’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. It means understanding the modes of logic, and knowing when to include healthy doses of ethos and pathos in your argument. Finally, it means recognizing when the continuation of a discussion does more harm than the ending of it.

We all have responsibilities in this battle for the truth, but the goal for all of us must be the same. It isn’t to establish “our truth” as the dominator of discussions. It’s to re-instill the right of truth in the abstract, to remind people that words and deeds and facts and numbers matter. It’s our duty as critical consumers of information to respect the experiment that can be verified, the mountain that can’t be moved, and the logic that makes an argument valid and clear.

The process of doing so is not always simple. It can be time consuming and frustrating to chase after the truth, and even more frustrating to explain to someone else how they too can find it. But the difficulty does not release us from the duty.

It is a just war that we fight, and fight it we must.

Otherwise, and I don’t say this lightly: all that humanity has gained will be lost.