We are inundated daily by a flood of words, from all the media and from live chattering people. Many words convey useful information. Many, on the other hand, encourage us to believe something that is uncertain or unprovable. Some are outright lies, many more are spoken without any real concern for the truth of what is said and are intended to create (or have the effect of creating) a false idea or impression, or to persuade us to buy some thing or idea.
So it is that we are regularly conned by liars and pitchmen, spin-doctors, artful dodgers and fast talkers. The short-hand term for the stock-in-trade of the con men is “B---S---,” and it affects almost every aspect of our lives.
In 1986 this impolite term was made respectable by a Princeton philosophy professor, Harry G. Frankfurt, in his published book “On B---S---,” a scholarly analysis of BS in which Frankfurt compares it with “humbug,” “nonsense” and “bluff” and distinguishes it from “lie.” A liar knows and is concerned with the truth, but wants you believe the opposite. The usual BS-er, on the other hand, doesn’t really care about the truth. He or she will say anything, just so it evokes the right emotional response.
Politics is a great arena of prevarication, half-truths and evasion. “Both parties must work together to chart a path forward on common sense reforms, and [a certain fiscal document] provides the nation’s leaders with the tools to get there,” said a well-known representative recently about a budget problem (and I quote his website). I was dismayed but not (sadly) surprised that a leading public figure could make a statement with so little useful meaning. It’s unfortunately just BS. Here’s why I say that.
First, what is important here is not “to chart a path” (whatever that means), but to act. “Forward” is a very popular if hopelessly vague cliché with probably as many interpretations as there are voters in his constituency. Next “common-sense”— good old common sense — is appealed to. But, as Einstein said, “Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach 18.” You don’t get a cold from getting cold, nor is the Earth any longer flat.
The “provides the nation’s … etc.” and the “ … work together …” statements are mere claptrap, for working together is just what the parties are totally unable to do. These fatuous words only show how easily we are satisfied by evasive “bunkum” (or “Buncombe”) — “insincere speechmaking by a politician intended merely to please local constituents” (TheFreeDictionary.com).
In general, it seems, a politician (party irrelevant!) wants to assure you that he or she knows the answers, while adroitly dodging the devil of the details. W.C. Fields advised long ago that “If you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with BS.”
“Indeed,” says Timothy Noah in Slate magazine (2005) “there are some troubling signs that the consumer has come to prefer BS. In choosing guests to appear on cable news, he says, “bookers will almost always choose a glib ignoramus over an expert who can’t talk in clipped sentences.” The big department store “SALE” is a con, but we seem to love it. Witness the fact that when J.C. Penney recently tried to substitute rational pricing for phony “sales,” the customers stayed away in droves. A news reporter who “sensationalizes” scientific progress to make a good story, says a writer in the MIT Technology Review, misrepresents it — with many harmful consequences.
Where would advertisements be without BS? “Lose five pounds of belly fat in a week!” “Learn to speak Spanish in 30 days!” “Men! Revive your lost manhood with this shocking discovery!” Individually, we all use BS at need (“Don’t worry, everything will be OK.” “Of course I love you, baby!”). It’s used to make us happy (“Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us”). Non-verbal humbug is rampant; if you buy a vacuum cleaner because the model in the ad is sexy, you’ve been hornswoggled.
The key to dealing with BS is the six honest serving-men marshaled in a great poem by Rudyard Kipling: “I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I know); Their names are What and Why and When/ And How and Where and Who.”
The facts these serving-men dig out will inform your critical thinking skills, so whenever you scent a bit of the old BS in the news or the ads (and there’s an awful lot) or suspect someone is trying to deceive you with half-truths and humbug, send these chaps out with their penetrating questions to cut through the tosh. Who is BS-ing? Why? Where did their information come from? What do they want from you? And so on until the truth emerges.
Newbury’s Jonathan Wells welcomes your comments at Jon3sticks@gmail.com.