Harry Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit seems to have been selling briskly. I have seen it listed as a bestseller on some of the lists in any given week. Bullshit is becoming a fertile tool for fashionable social criticism, although it seems to be falling back into its old usage of an epithet. People are jumping on the honeywagon, talking about the things things they don’t agree with as “bullshit”. Do some kinds of bullshit smell worse than others?
A couple of weeks ago, the Free Press published a review of Laura Penny’s book Your Call is Important to Us – The Truth about Bullshit. According to the reviewer, Penny quotes Frankfurt and applies the idea of bullshit to the way companies and bureaucracies treat their customers and clients, and to American politics, foreign and domestic. She is politically on the left, vaguely anti-American.
The book is being promoted like a new book, but it’s actually a quality paperback release, by McLelland & Stewart of a book originally published Your Call Is Important to Us: So Why Isn’t Anyone Answering? published by Macfarlane, Walter & Ross as (ISBN ISBN 1-55199-092-X). Macfarlane, Walter & Ross was a non-fiction publisher, sold by Stoddard to McLelland and Stewart before some of the turmoil in the Canadian book trade in the last decade. M&S announced it was shutting down that division in April 2003. I haven’t been able to find when the original edition of Your Call is Important to Us was published. Most bookstores don’t list it, or list it as unavailable. Some bookstore catalogues have obviously incorrect publication dates – they are in the future. Some pages that say it was published in April or September 2004, which may be more accurate. It’s a nearly dead Canadian book on the back list, revived by good marketing, riding the bullshit wave. The author owes something to some of the business bullshit of her publisher and agent.
Frankfurt did say a few things about advertising and political speech, as examples of general humbug, in his paper. His paper started from the fact that a lot of human speech is spent on things that are not clearly true or false. Plato and other classical philosophers tried to separate their philosophy from the efforts of the teachers of rhetoric. Philosophy, for Plato, is the love of wisdom and the pursuit of truth. Rhetoric represents the trickery of mere persuasive speech. Frankfurt appeared to having fun when he was on the Daily Show. He didn’t think his paper said anything new – he was visiting an old issue in a new culture.
In the movie The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Sean Penn’s character Samuel Bicke is allowed to show himself as a likeable, misunderstood guy, continually victimized by injustice. He is a furniture salesman employed by a man who is master of the manipulative discourse of positive thinking. He is frustrated in his dealings with government bureaucrats on a business loan application. He thinks he is an honest guy, constantly punished for his honesty. In 1974, Samuel Bicke tried to hijack an airplane at the Philadelphia airport to crash it into the White House and kill Richard Nixon – the master of lies and bullshit. The genius of the movie and Penn’s work is that Bicke, a troubled man, comes across as a nice guy who doesn’t deserve to be treated as such a troubled and dangerous man.
Once we move from hard facts to persuasive speech, we start to talk about different perspectives about justice. Bicke was not a good salesman, but he was right in perceiving that a salesman, in transacting business, is trying to get an economic result by manipulating the customer. It was hard for him to respect himself within an economic system that required him to work like that. But his story about himself was bullshit. He talked around his own real failings.
The basic idea that much of what people say is imprecise, vague and unverifiable is quite obvious. Some bullshit is manipulative, which is part of economic and political life. It’s absolutely unavoidable in any economic or political order, and particularly in a free market democracy. Having said that, what next?
Laura Penny says that the modern world is full of bullshit. Companies selling products create large expectations but don’t want to live up to warranties or interact with customers with questions and complaints. But they try to brush the customers off very nicely. Bullshit? Yes, but not because the company engages in imprecise speech. It is engaging in imprecise speech about the value of products and relationships with customers. A lot of values are at play, beyond honesty and accuracy in communication.