“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.
Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “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. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”
The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.
As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).
Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.
What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.
You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.
At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”
See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.
Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.
And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.
As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.
I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.