On bullshit and truthiness: Harry Frankfurt, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Ryan's Convention speech

How do we know when someone is speaking bullshit or talking with 'thruthiness'? In the latter case this is particularly important when it comes to politicians speaking in public, because we are all involved in the resulting compact.  Could this be what radical democracy looks like? 

Thomas Rodham
26 September 2012


In 2005 Harry Frankfurt republished a wonderful philosophical essay, 'On Bullshit', which became a bestseller. In the same year Stephen Colbert introduced a new word to us, 'Truthiness', which Merriam Webster named 'word of the year' in 2006. Both terms evidently tap into the spirit of our times. Clearly their underlying concerns significantly overlapped regarding the decline of truth in public discourse. Yet, they also differ in the particular problem they focus on: bullshit is a form of artful deception of audiences by speakers; while truthiness is a collaborative exercise in self-deception in which the audience is a willing participant. Bullshit denotes an abuse of expert authority (such as by academics or politicians), while truthiness is a radically democratic view of truth as a matter of personal opinion: whatever one finds it agreeable to believe.

The specific kind of deception involved in bullshit, Frankfurt argued, is focused on the project the speaker is engaged in. The audience is given the impression that the speaker is a pursuer of the truth, that the correctness of his representations matter to him. In this he resembles the liar. Yet unlike the liar, the bullshitter has no particular interest in the truth status of his claims - he simply doesn't care whether what he is saying is true or false, so long as his argument as a whole has the effect on his audience that he wants. As Frankfurt puts it:

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describes reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."

Examples of bullshit abound in places where people are highly motivated to win over an audience at all costs (like politicians); or where a self-professed expert is called upon to express his or her judgement on an area outside his or her real expertise, but does so any way; or even in ordinary life, where we think we are all supposed to be highly informed on the hot topics of the day (like the Eurozone crisis, or GM crops, or Syria) and will hold forth confidently about them despite our deep ignorance.

Yet although politicians talk an awful lot of bullshit, and have always done so, diagnosing what is really wrong about contemporary politics requires the additional concept of 'truthiness'. If one looks at Paul Ryan's Republican Convention speech, it is not quite right to say that it is bullshit. Yes, on the surface there is the combination of a casual disdain for truth combined with specific factual claims that is so characteristic of bullshit. Yet the conditions for bullshit are not quite met.

Recall that Frankfurt's definition of bullshit identifies it as a particular kind of deception about the enterprise the speaker is engaged in: of being concerned with truth while actually only being concerned with getting their claims accepted. Yet it seems clear in this case that the audience was not deceived, and that Ryan didn't suppose or intend that they would be. The convention audience didn't care about the accuracy of the factual claims that Ryan was making any more than he did. This was a collaborative and to some degree conscious act of self-persuasion by all concerned, in which they affirmed together a deeper truth. To paraphrase Colbert, Ryan didn't pretend to tell the truth to his audience. Instead he felt the truth at them.

Truthiness is an important concept for understanding the breakdown of that fuddy duddy enlightenment concept of objectivity in contemporary society. While bullshit supposes an artful powerful manipulator of a rather passive and somewhat stupid audience (a classic US-liberal rationalisation of the success of conservative rhetoric), truthiness is radically egalitarian and democratic. 'The people' get to decide what's really true.

US-liberals often say that Tea-partiers must be stupid or demented to believe that Obama is a Muslim and/or Communist who was born in Kenya, etc.  It would be more accurate to say that they have a different understanding of truth, that comes from the heart (or the gut), not the head. (NB of course some Democrat supporters exhibit the same phenomenon.) This sort of Republican believes in Obama's fundamental unAmericanism and evilness. This is an older sense of the word 'belief', as faith or trust in something, not the enlightenment sense the word belief is generally understood as, as connected with a distinct and warranted claim that something is so.

Thus, specific claims about Obama's birthplace or ObamaCare death panels are not supposed to be evidentiary, as the old-fashioned enlightenment tradition assumes. They are not factual claims that warrant the deeper claim that Obama is un American, etc. It is the other way around. Obama being born in Kenya or wanting to murder sick old people are being offered as illustrative examples of the kind of thing that Obama would do to all intents and purposes, given the underlying truth about him.

Illustrative examples play a role in refining and vivifying the underlying beliefs that people hold. Yet because they do not play an evidentiary role they are peripheral to how people come to hold their views. These 'facts' (representations of the objective world) are produced by people's personal prior commitment to seeing the world one way, rather than determining how they should view the world. Disproving these facts therefore in an attempt to clean up partisan propaganda, as earnest fact-checkers are increasingly trying to do, is a doomed enterprise. The truth or falsity of their factual claims is irrelevant to the project this type of person is engaged in and will not dissuade them in the slightest.

What makes all this democratic, and radically democratic at that, is the extension of democratic principles to the domain of truth. Not only do we get to decide for ourselves what is good and bad; whether we should go to war with Iran or not; whether God exists and what kind of God He is; and so on. In this post-enlightenment age we now also, apparently, get to decide what's true or not. As Stephen Colbert explains, "Reference books are elitist - constantly telling us what is or isn't true or what did or didn't happen". Much more democratic for the people to decide for themselves what truth they believe in.


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