Saturday, January 14, 2006

Peddling Bullshit for Fun and Profit: Bestselling author (A Million
Little Pieces) James Frey ( photo)


by Tammy de Leeuw
(Special to the Sour Grapes Gazette)

From webspeak such as"Disintermediate strategic channels," "incentivize next-generation portals," and "revolutionize mission-critical niches," to the daily advertising hype which pummels us nonstop, bullshit has edged it's way into being the coin of the realm in modern America.

It is something understood by few, yet recognized by many, to the extent that Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt's seminal treatise "On Bullshit" became a national bestseller only a short while after it's publication. In the book, Frankfort endeavors to define and clarify what bullshit really is, why there is so much of it in our society, and why bullshitters as a group tend to be less reviled than liars even though bullshitting is far more harmful in the long run.

Frankfurt claims that bullshit, 'is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.'

Other authors echo Frankfurt's claims. Laura Penny, author of "Your Call is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit," says:

"There is so much bullshit that one hardly knows where to begin.The platitudinous pabulum that passes for stirring political rhetoric is bullshit. . . . The committee-crafted persona and the focus-grouped fad and the rule of the polls are straight-up bullshit. The disease hysteria du jour is bullshit, and so is the latest miracle pill. The new product that will change your life is probably just more cheap, plastic bullshit.“Your call is important to us” has been chosen from a very deep reservoir of bullshit phrases for the title of this book because it best exemplifies the properties native to bullshit. It tries to slather some nice on the result of a simple ratio: your time versus some company’s dough. Like most bullshit, the more times you hear it, the bullshittier it gets. This is why bullshit is best served quickly, with many visuals, in mass quantities, with no questions from the floor."

Offices are rife with bullshit and movies such as OFFICE SPACE tap into our growing dissatisfaction with the horse hockey which passes for information and the meaningless pet projects which pass for real work. offers a quiz to help one determine if his or her job is really just bullshit.(HINT: The majority of them are)

When I was terminated back in March, I had my own specially crafted piece of bullshit presented to me in the form of a termination slip. I wish I still had the original- the wording was classic lawyer-approved, HR Department Manual Version 2 BS, something to the effect that the company had been "evaluating its needs moving forward" and that my skills did not fit those needs. This was a patent attempt to sugarcoat what for me was a very real, very painful, and very economically devastating reality. Even at the time, both the person who disseminated the BS termination slip and I tacitly understood its true nature, but were required by convention to accept and even endorse it.

Given our litigious society I do understand that some tasks require the odd dab of faux sincerity and meaningless phrase. My personal opinion is that lawyers generate 98% of the world's bullshit, with the rest of us contributing our fair share of the remaining 2 per cent. It seems that we are willing to swallow almost any bunk presented to us, as long as it is festooned with with ample amounts of sincerity.

Sincerity itself falls prey to Frankfort and Penny's cynical observations with Frankfort implying that sincerity is nothing more than an acute form of bullshit at worst. At best it is a costume for what Frankfort says the essence of bullshit really is- our indifference to reality. Frankfort contends that bullshit can be substantively true and yet remain bullshit, no matter how passionate or sincere the bullshitter. If a person says something having no proof that it is true, then it remains bullshit, even if subsequent events or new evidence eventually validates it. Politicians attempt to bypass this truth time and again to justify the outlandish bullshit they proffer on a daily basis.

I recently saw an interesting program on counterfeiting and the billion dollar plans governments implement in order to stop it. An agent admitted that in the grand scheme of things, counterfeiting is actually a very minor problem. Why then does the government spend so much to eradicate such a minor crime? The answer is simply that every counterfeit bill chips away at the integrity of the monetary system and causes people to lose faith in their greenbacks. It is this loss of faith which does the most harm to the economy, not the fake bills themselves.The same could be said of bullshit. As pervasive and tolerated as it is, as many of us who engage in the act of bullshitting, there is a gradual erosion of our faith in the truth. Frankfort puts it this way:

"Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. ...The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

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