On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 3: Politeness as Bullshit

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In the bond of peace,

After our time with both Frankfurt and Cohen it is now time to ask ourselves if bullshit truly is such a bad thing. Might we actually need bullshit?

In his seminal book On Bullshit, Frankfurt states the following:

"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." (On Bullshit, p. 50)

Why are we so tolarante of bullshit? Perhaps it is because we realize we can't do without it.

That is the thesis of Scott Kimbrough in his essay On Letting It Slide from the book Bullshit and Philosophy.

As evidence of this position Kimbrough has us consider the case of politeness. Generally, politeness requires us to bullshit. True, sometimes it looks like politeness is a lie, but it bears more similarity to Frankfurt's definition of bullshit. For example, let's say a wife asks a husband, "Do I look fat?" Let's say the husband thinks his wife has gained a few pounds. However, he says "No." It looks like he is telling a lie. But, more properly, he's bullshitting. Why? Because the husband's answer is always going to be "No" regardless of the truth of the matter. His speech isn't a lie as much as he has disconnected his speech from any concern with "how things stand." And, according to Frankfurt, that's bullshit.

Is the husband wrong in bullshitting? In one sense, bullshit is the perfect stance for him to take. If he connects his speech to reality he either tells the truth or tells a lie. Either way he's screwed. But it he bullshits, if he systematically decouples his speech (on these occasions) from reality (i.e., No matter the situation his answer will always be "No," forever and ever, Amen) then technically he isn't lying. His speech is doing something different than trying to represent or hide the truth.

Well, what then is his speech trying to do? It's trying to supportive and relational. In this case it is trying to protect the ego of someone he loves; because body weight, in a truly loving relationship, doesn't matter. The husband doesn't want to offer an opinion, he doesn't want to be asked. But he is asked and he can't respond "No comment." So he does the next best thing, he bullshits.

As a recent example of this consider the case of Nick Saban, former Mimai Dolphins head coach, who recently took the job as head coach at the University of Alabama. A few weeks before the end of the Dolphins season, on December 21, Saban was asked directly about if he was looking into the Alabama job. Saban replied: "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."

Well, it turns out he was considering the job. Days after the last Dolphins game Saban took the Alabama job. He was roundly criticized for being a liar concerning his comments on Dec. 21.

Here was part of Saban's defense: "I'm a little bit of a victim," Saban said. "I get asked questions that I really shouldn't answer. You should have the opportunity to weigh those options and I didn't have the opportunity to do that."

Saban said that he did not choose to answer the Alabama questions with a "no comment" because "then that becomes a big story, and everybody on the team reads it and they're out there saying, 'Well, I don't know if coach is getting ready for this game or not?' "

Saban's point is the point I was making earlier. Saban realized that his speech prior to the end of the Dolphins season could not be engaged in truth-claims. To do so would distract his team. But neither did Saban wish to lie. So what does he do? He bullshits. And his defense is basically this: If you ask those kinds of questions prior to the end of the season you cannot legitimately expect truth. It's an inappropriate question requiring a bullshit answer. And you should know this. Thus, to retrospectively call me a liar misses the whole dynamic of the December 21st exchange. The context of the conversation should have clued you in that you would only get bullshit from me. Not truth, not lies. Bullshit. Note Saban's actual words: "I get asked questions that I really shouldn't answer." His point? If you ask those kinds of questions you are going to get bullshit answers. And bullshit, technically, isn't a lie.

The point of all this is that politeness is a kind of bullshit. For in politeness our speech is not involved in trying to represent truth. As such it is bullshit. But it is a necessary kind of bullshit. Kimbrough cites from William Ian Miller's book Faking It:

"Politeness doesn't need an excuse; fakery is openly admitted to lie at the structural core of the virtue. Politeness is immune to many forms of hypocrisy because a certain benign form of hypocrisy is precisely its virtue...at relatively little cost, it saves people from unnecessary pain in social encounters." (p. 35)

In a similar way, my whole social persona is a form of bullshit. In social encounters if you say, "Hi! How are you?" I will invariably respond, "Good. How are you?" The point is, no matter how I'm feeling, I'm always going to say "Good." I'm not lying, I'm bullshitting. My speech is about something other than the communication of truth-claims. It's about social conventions and cultural greeting rituals. (We should also note that the question "How are you?" is also a form of bullshit in that the question isn't really a question, it's a greeting.)

And the point of all this is that we are awash in bullshit.

And maybe that isn't such a bad thing.

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4 thoughts on “On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 3: Politeness as Bullshit”

  1. Richard,

    I would argue that your whole social persona is not a form of bullshit. Politeness is etymologically related to the Greek, polis, and has to do with being politic, civil, or diplomatic. I wouldn't call a conventional greeting bullshitting. Instead of saying to your mother-in-law (the famous mother-in-law test), "How are you?" the next time you see her, simply say "Bullshit?" (Then again, she might say: "Yes, Richard, it's about time that you realized you are full of it!")

    A greeting, it seems to me, conveys a truth about the other that says: "I acknowledge your existence as part of my community and my world but chose not to burden you with my burdens (or homemovies) because our contact will be fleeting, restrained, and without intimacy." It is the difference between formal and familiar. Bullshit falls into that raw, no man's land between and/or at the margins of the formal and familiar. It is a form of spin or propaganda, characteristic of democratic opportunistic vulgarity in the same way snobbery or arrogance is aristocratic vulgarity.

    Lou Sabin isn't a bullshitter. He's a liar and opportunist. He could have said: "I'm not going to answer that question. I've got a team to coach and that's what I intend to do. And regardless of what I say or don't say, you in the media will speculate based on what others are saying. Now about the game Sunday . . . ." If he had said that, he would only have been an opportunist.

    And by the way, I can think of several responses if your wife asks, "Do I look fat?" (1)Unwise: "I could never imagine you as being fat." (2)Unwiser: "Compared to what?" (3) Unwisest: "You're bullshittin' me, right?"

    Now back to my "Weekly World News"--a reading habit I developed while in academe at general faculty meetings. Whimsy is the perfect antidote for BS, though it is possible for whimsy to occasionally be BS.


  2. George,
    I see your points. When I call politeness bullshit, I'm using the Frankfurtian definition (speech not aimed at truth claims but on the surface looking as if it is). The point being that lots of things look like bullshit according to Frankfurt but might not be bullshit (as a derogatory label). Thus, my conclusion: Maybe "bullshit" so construed isn't the bad thing Frankfurt claims it is.

    BTW, you need a blog my friend.

  3. I agree with your point about bullshit being a relational/formality piece that is somewhat necessary.

    Most of all, I appreciate your explanation of the Nick Saban issue. Being a fan of both the Dolphins AND Alabama, I'm kind of glad to see Saban with Alabama -- though I've been annoyed by all of the criticism he's gotten. It's nice to see his bullshit put in the proper perspective -- that he was simply trying to avoid distractions.

    Roll Tide!

  4. Richard,

    I have thought about a blog and will probably attempt it in the near future. When I set it up, I'll alert you if you wish.

    Blessings . . . .

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