Sincerity is Bullshit

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share." -- HG Frankfurt

I frequently re-read Harry G. Frankfurt’s classic little mini-essay “On Bullshit.” The essay comes across as ever-so-slightly a joke, but only because it’s so much fun to take “bullshit” this seriously.

Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be
sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other
times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than
ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have
increased.

The essay was originally written in the 1980s, before being “online” was really a thing. It was published as a tiny book by Princeton University Press in 2005, before social media was really a thing. Each time I read this essay, its words are the same, but I am different, and the world is different. And so it resonates in a new way. Consider this proposition:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances
require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.
Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s
obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more
excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that
topic.

In the 1980s this critique fell mainly on the professional pundit class employed within major media; in 2005, this critique broadened to include handfuls of bloggers with dedicated followings. But in the 2020s, this critique falls on uncountable millions, maybe billions. Certainly everyone who uses social media feels “obligations” and has infinate “opportunities” to weigh in on topics well beyond their “knowledge of the facts that are relevant.” If I feel the need to share my opinion about the filibuster, or Critical Race Theory, or the genetic mutation of viruses, given that I possess no expertise in any of those subjects, I’m probably either 1) repeating something I read into an echo chamber, and/or 2) polluting the cultural currents with a fetid stream of bullshit.

I have a right to my opinions. Along with that right (as with all grown-up rights) comes an obligation — in this case, to have reality-based perspective about my own opinions, and their relative value in the world. This perspective on my opinions and their place in the world doesn’t deprive my ideas of meaning; to the contrary, a reality-based context is the foundation from which my ideas might really mean anything at all.

This has to do with a distinction between public and private speech, and that was a far more solid thing when Frankfurt first wrote — in the 80s, people didn’t routinely chat with friends on a global forum where their words could be read by an uncontrollable number of people, across the world, into perpetuity.

And so, in the essay, he only briefly discusses the phenomenon of the “bull session,” first questioning whether “bull” really refers to the participants all being men (as his O.E.D. claims) or whether “bull session” is actually just a “sanitized” phrasing for bullshit session. After all, what…

…constitutes a bull session is, it seems to me, something like this:
while the discussion may be intense and significant, it is in a certain
respect not “for real.”

When friends are “shooting the shit” in a “bull session” they can take on ideas just because no one else has yet, or question ideas just because the question is “sitting there.” This is how ideas play! And play is how ideas learn.

The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very
personal and emotion-laden aspects of life — for instance,
religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak
altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might
be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is
that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in
order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things
and in order to discover how others respond, without it being
assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is
understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements
people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or
how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high
level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach
to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for
enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be
encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much
anxiety that they will be held to it.

The word he doesn’t use is trust (it’s buried under “provision is made”) in a bullshit session, people trust that their fellow participants will not lose sight of the context; they will not become literally offended (pretend-offended is fine); they will not feel actual anger (pretend anger is fine); and they will not hold a sincerely-felt grudge (performative grudges held from session to session will be applauded and cheered).

This is the kind of conversation I grew up immersed in. My young parents had many also-young (teenage, early-20s) siblings, and it was the 70s and 80s, when the primary source of “entertainment” was socializing with fellow human beings. People might start with the “news of the day” — politics, celebrities, sports — but then they’d riff on it, make outrageous statements just to get a reaction, and laugh. Someone else, let’s call him “John,” might take that outrageous idea and push it further until the laughter is mock-stopped and John is told “now you’ve gone too far, even for me!” And it’s John’s turn to laugh. Or rather, everyone is laughing, because the whole thing is not “for real.” No one will be “held to” what they say here. But everyone is learning about the world. This is fun, transgressive, imaginative-creative social play, and play is how we learn; here we’re playing with morals, playing with mores, playing with what’s okay and not okay, what’s right and wrong.

When I teach this essay to college-aged students, I always ask them about this section, about the “bull sessions” — is this familiar to you? For a while now, most people say no. Or they say this is how you can behave in certain anonymous and unregulated corners of the internet. Or they say they have one good friend they can talk to freely and joke around with, trusting that the friend will still be their friend even if they cross some lines, that they will not be “held” to what they say.

I have seen many bull sessions go sour when one participant — let’s call him “Jeff” — who is probably upset about other things, whose trust of the other participants has been undermined, starts getting actually upset, actually angry. Someone will say, “c’mon man, be cool, we’re all just shooting the shit here,” but Jeff can’t be cool, because in truth he doesn’t trust these people (in truth he doesn’t trust anyone), and now that it’s happening, actually, disrupting everyone else’s little party, their little bragging show of their trust and comfort with each other, is great! Blow it all up! Because fuck them for having each other’s back when they never had mine, and they’re just using this as another excuse to torment me, and I’ll show these motherfuckers…

Once the bull session has one “Jeff” in it, it’s no longer fun. The real world with its real history and its real pain and real consequences has intruded. If the others continue bullshitting, they can only do so united against the agrieved Jeff, and so Jeff will feel it as genuine torment, and he won’t forget it and move on when the conversation is over. Pity Jeff, but pity also everyone who was having a great time before he overturned the card table. Here’s the “network effect” no one talks about: it only takes one turd to spoil the punch bowl. We can speak imaginatively and creatively in an environment of trust; if we’re always speaking more or less in public, there will always be one or more people involved who don’t feel trust, and they might hold us to something we’re not even sure we meant, and try to ruin our lives, or at least our day.

This is an aspect of what’s often called “context collapse”: when we are online, we are out-of-context, untrusted, and judged flatly as objects; and yet we are human, we still want to learn about the world and its ideas, and our brains want to shoot the shit, to think and “try on” ideas, and play. This is a real dilemma for modern human social development, if modern human social development wants to happen online.

Frankfurt’s essay, tho, isn’t about “bull sessions”; it’s about bullshit, and that’s not the same thing. He only really addresses bull sessions to allow this important contrast:

Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words,
upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not
to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or
believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation
is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions
about the connection between what people say and what they
believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session
differ from bullshit in that there is no pretense that this connection
is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that
they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth.

I bolded “pretense” because that is the key word here: when I’m bullshitting with friends, no one thinks I’m serious. If a stranger wandered in the room, they might take me all wrong — that would be unfortunate. But if I carried my bullshit on purpose into a setting where no one knows me (I purposefully collapse — or, let’s say, disguise — my actual context), and I present my bullshitery as though it were real — with a pretense of realitynow that, that would be bullshit.

That actual dishonesty is mostly what Frankfurt writes about. He dissects dictionary definitions, literary alusions, Max Black’s musings on “humbug” (which is similar to bullshit, but not the same thing), and the ironies inherent in our common understanding of bullshit, especially the paradoxical idea that bullshit may be the product of intense, precise effort.

It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods
as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the
resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a
careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted,
that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive
concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter
by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily
messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this.
Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted,
or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may
not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.
[…]
But in fact [ the idea of finely-wrought bullshit ] is not out of the
question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations,
and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with
instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the
most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in
these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who —
with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market
research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and
so forth — dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word
and image they produce exactly right.

When we’re shooting the shit, we’re exercising a true human creative need, a form of intellectual-social play that helps us learn about the world, and we know that’s what we’re doing, and the people around us know it too. The unscripted, unpredictable nature of the conversation is its strength and appeal — and its value. We don’t have an agenda — at least not a real one. But bullshit, real bullshit, is actually more thought through, its agenda is real, even if its content is not, and its context is fake. When you’re shooting the shit with friends, you’re open to ideas even when you’re debating them — you’re vulnerable; you must trust. When you’re bullshitting someone, you’re not vulnerable, you’re ruthless — your bullshit is a sheild and a sword — and your only concern with “trust” is gaining it, dishonestly, from someone else, to achieve your ends. To do this, you use some of the skills of a bull session, but you apply them more precisely, with a goal in mind. You’re playing bullshit to win.

Frankfurt spends some time on a literary example in which a character tells his son, “never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.” This suggests something additional about bullshit — it’s preferable to lying, even to a person who doesn’t care about the truth. Frankfurt thinks this is because of the scorn heaped on liars, and the relative amnesty available to bullshitters:

We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more
likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than
with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire. The
problem of understanding why our attitude toward bullshit is
generally more benign than our attitude toward lying is an
important one, which I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.

Perhaps our attitude towards bullshit is “more benign than our attitude toward lying” because we’re confused. Perhaps we would be more angry with the bullshitter than even the liar, if we could see straight. But bullshit creates a fog, and we’re not sure. We don’t want to be conned or trolled or disrespected in any of the other ways true bullshit disrespects us; on the other hand, when asked to judge “a bullshitter,” we imagine someone playful and — if you’re in on the joke — trustworthy.

This is a strange thing: bullshitting openly with trusted friends is actually among the most honest things you can do. Because you probably don’t really know what you think, or if you do, you haven’t really interrogated why you think it. The truth of a human being is that we are each undetermined spinning wheels of possibility in an ever-changing environment, always being faced with new dilemmas. How can certainty be anything but a performance, a kind of imaginative play? You don’t believe your own bullshit, do you?

Interacting online, you’re surrounded by bullshitery. Who is just shooting the shit, and who is really, malevolently, bullshitting you? Context collapse means you often can’t tell. Or you think you can, but you’re wrong. Eventually you get used to this, and the line between shooting the shit and bullshitting might evaporate. So now maybe full-on bullshit, of ill-intent and with the pretense of reality, is your fun! Instead of trying on ideas in an environment of trust, you troll strangers. Or you make “friends” under a false identity, basically conning people, to meet your brain’s basic need to play and learn about the world. Even if you don’t want to be blasted by bullshit, you can’t hate a butt for shitting — it’s what it was made to do!

Going back to that literary reference about “bullshitting your way through,” there’s another important point revealed there; it’s not just that bullshitters are less hated than liars, it’s that…

…“bullshitting one’s way through” . . . involves not merely producing
one instance of bullshit; it involves a program of producing bullshit
to whatever extent the circumstances require. . . . Telling a lie is an act
with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a
specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the
consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This
requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie
submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be
the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In
order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.
And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his
falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a
person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much
more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He
does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific
point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding
that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as
well, so far as need requires.

So the liar is himself, and tells a lie, hoping you will believe it. But the bullshitter is anyone and everyone he needs to be to get what he wants. And in fact, the world is whatever he needs it to be to get what he wants! A bullshitter is a gaslighter — inventing a phony reality, and if you don’t believe it, it’s not that the lie failed, it’s that yer nuts!

In an online environment of “context collapse,” faking context is much easier to do than IRL, practically speaking: an in-person con might require props, costumes, faked documents — even just pretending you know about a subject might require you summon up proper names from memory: the president of China or the capital of Sri Lanka. Online you can post a fake profile picture that makes you a different sex and race and 20 years older, and google anything you need to “know.”

But whether online or IRL, the bullshitter’s desire to deceive others is the same; online there’s just less friction. The imaginative craft that goes into constructing a position and a story — what in classical rhetoric might be called an ethos — is the same online or IRL. Online provides greater speed, and ease. A bullshitter need never tell a lie:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of
affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning
that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of
being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in
its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us,
or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he
takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive
us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive
characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is
up to. […] He does not care whether the things he says describe
reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit
his purpose.

He “deceive[s] us about his enterprise” and “misrepresents what he is up to” “to suit his purpose”: he has a purpose and you probably think it’s something else. “Reality”? Who cares? He will say and be whatever, truth is irrelevant — hey, we live in a mish-mash of “truths”! What matters is getting what you want, and not the “honest” way, like the suckers do. Winning means tricking. Winning means you hold all the cards and the losers don’t know what hit them. The bullshitter is creative and imaginative, willing to take on different positions and play different roles, and rigorous when it comes to the pursuit of the goal — but there’s no vulnerability and no trust, no friendship. The bullshitter’s enterprise is taking advantage.

As Frankfurt points out,

However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it
remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.

This is really key to the question of bullshit: we think of it as something harmless, but how much of this can a society endure? The online environment has created conditions for bullshit to proliferate like an algae bloom. The more polluted the environment becomes, the harder it is to have healthy, trusting relationships with people in which we function, let alone have true creative-imaginative conversations, “bull sessions” in which our trust allows us to be vulnerable enough to try out ideas and begin to understand this ever-changing, very complex world.

This is why, as I said earlier, our obligation for perspective on the relative value of our opinions is necessary to our opinions having any meaning at all: without that perspective, our opinions lack context, and can’t be understood. Without context, understanding itself is sacrified, because without context, we don’t have a shared reality from which to begin to understand.

Frankfurt explained this decades ago, long before social media. He concludes the essay with this:

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper
sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can
have any reliable access to an objective reality and which
therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.
These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value
of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is
false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective
inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat
from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of
correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is
imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather
than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a
common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide
honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no
inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth
about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.
It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be
true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to
himself.

The online world of dis-contextualization has indeed spawned this very behavior: we are not narcissists, but we have turned inward, because website A says This is correct and website B says That is correct, and without a way to determine the facts, we’re left with side-taking.

We focus on the self and the self’s status via connection. Doing this in the objectifying structure of a social network pushes our individuality towards “identity” — our naturally fluid, creative, and unpredictable selves ossify into a more rigid and predictable “dataset.” Once we’ve stilled ourselves, we believe we can read ourselves, and each person claims their personal truth, in hopes or affirmation of a networked cohort of fellows who share the same truth forever and without change or violation. People try to be true to this idea of self, to sincerity, because the ideal of being “correct” about anything seems out of reach.

My college-aged students tend to find this ending sort of “out of nowhere,” but I believe that’s because Frankfurt doesn’t try to explicitly tackle the cognitive importance and necessity of the bull session, and the way in which that kind of creative intellectual play allows us to grapple honestly and realistically with the world and our place (and the place of our opinions) in it. And this is, I believe, the wisest thing Frankfurt says in the entire essay:

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are
determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to
incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of
determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As
conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and
we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.
Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in
experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the
truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts
about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical
dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial —
notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other
things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

The only thing you really know is that you know nothing, yet there is an objective reality, and it is knowable. You have a perspective, but someone else’s might be better — clearer, better-informed. And all knowledge is contingent upon further discovery. Future people will doubtless think we’re all a bunch of idiots.

The next time I re-read HG Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit,” I will be a different person, living in a different world, and I will probably read it in a different way. But that’s okay, because we’re all just throwing around ideas here — just shooting the shit.