Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, pt. 2: useful conversation

There’s a lot to like in Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit”. Briefly, for background, a lie depends on the truth, as the speaker of a lie intends to misrepresent something that is not true as something that is. In contrast, bullshit isn’t the misrepresentation of something false as something true. Truth and falsity don’t really enter into the equation. We usually, probably correctly, think of bullshit as an overall bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily always so. Frankfurt writes about a related phenomenon, the “bull session”:

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.

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. …

He later writes about a “fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false.”

Not all speech outside of the truth-falsity spectrum is undesirable, as the passage makes clear. Things get figured out that way in a low-pressure way, and even if they don’t it’s a fun way to pass the time. There’s something to be said for social cohesion, too.

Extending this, quite a lot of undergraduate life outside of the classroom is an extended bull session. I recall many speakers, films, flyers, protests, etc. competing for my attention and how these stimuli were important in helping me and my friends flesh out what we thought about the world and why. The current push to sanitize all aspects of campus life shuts people off from viewpoints they haven’t heard and should grapple with because it paints everything as part of a grand cultural battle. When every thought is part of a battle for the soul of humanity, the future of the planet, etc., we get a lot of stunted intellectual development. Often the ones who take the struggle most seriously suffer activist burnout. (Also, see The Onion’s take.)

Remember Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld giving up on performing for college audiences? From The Atlantic:

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

Comedy works because it’s obvious you’re not supposed to take everything so seriously; stand-up comedy is essentially a bull monologue. It’s no surprise colleges are the specific audiences Rock and Seinfeld avoid now. It’s not just colleges, of course, that’s just what most of the discussion in this vein focuses on. Our broader cultural conversation doesn’t let anybody try out a thought without having to be bound to it. (In politics this is desirable, but not elsewhere.)

What would make this post complete if it existed, counterfactually, is the actionable takeaway. But I see the problem more clearly now.

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