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On (CowPuckey)

Is it really a lie when the person making an outrageous statement doesn’t actually care if it’s the truth or not?  It’s such a common situation that statements somewhere outside of lies and truth have gotten not only their own name, which I’ll abbreviate “BS”, but they are spawning a line of academic thought and papers.  It’s a big part of our culture and our politics, but what can we do about it?

First of all, I’ve decided to avoid the clinical term.  This may seem cowardly, but I’ve worked hard to raise blogging above the gutter – let me use the terms “BS” and “(CowPuckey)” to describe what I’m talking about.

The term reached public consciousness when retired Philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt published his essay, “On (CowPucky)” in 2005.  It is an exposition on the corrosive effect of people saying pretty much whatever they want to, regardless of whether it’s true or not.  The BSer “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” according to Frankfurt.

(CowPuckey) lies at the heart of so much of our culture it’s getting harder to tease out.   The financial crisis was, at the heart of it, about representations of risk that were made not as actual lies but with a complete disregard for the idea that there was a true risk out there in some form.  Entire careers in infotainment have been made out of calling President Obama a “Socialist” who wants to bring down the US.  We even went to war with Iraq for reasons that, obviously had no relationship to truth whatsoever, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

How did it get this bad?

The answer lies with the nature of (CowPuckey) itself.  There are several distinct forms of this kind of talk, ranging from hyperbole to make a joke to a full-out con or swindle.  While it may seem strange to study this academically, it’s worth looking at the nature of it because at the heart of it we’re looking at a fundamental disconnect between the speakers and reality, a lack of connection between highly driven individuals and their social responsibility.  The lack of authority of truth is the lack of authority of anything, the ultimate triumph of the individual.

I like to consider myself a bit of an expert on (CowPuckey) for the simple reason that I grew up in Florida.  Our founding fathers were, pretty much to the man, pirates and con artists – and it doesn’t take long to realize that at least the pirates were honest about what they were doing.  But for that, eventually you have to have some sympathy for the con artists in the sense that if people are dumb enough to fall for the con it seems that they were going to be taken by someone, somewhere at some point no matter what.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is – and in politics, if it sounds too dumb to be true, it probably is as well.

That doesn’t stop people from believing what they want, of course.  A good con, at the heart of it, is about the Bigger Better Deal (BBD) being used to make someone’s imagination work against their common sense.  A world that has a deep lust for the Bigger and Better is always going to be waiting for someone with the right (CowPuckey) to come along.

Sticking with simple examples in politics, we can see this everywhere.  Former FEMA director Michael Brown recently said that Obama is using the oil spill to stop offshore drilling, despite the simple and obvious fact that Obama has been a strong supporter of offshore drilling.  Why would someone say this (CowPuckey)?  Because it suited him at the moment and it helps to sell a political agenda.  Clearly, this particular con man will say just about anything.

But it’s far deeper than that. What’s important here is that the man got on CNN saying these things, which is really shocking. It’s impossible to respond to (CowPuckey) without giving it some kind of credence, a heft that it simple does not deserve at all.  That makes political debate nearly impossible, compromise unimaginable, and any kind of real progress hopeless.  And this is just one tiny example of what’s presented.

What can we do about the (CowPuckey) that has taken over our politics, our economics, and just about every aspect of our culture?  We have to call it for what it is, and leave it at that.  That means that we don’t engage in any “debate” on terms set up by con men and BSers.  I’m going to spend this week examining what I think we can do instead.

There are a lot of rich links in this article tying what I’m saying here to what I’ve said in the past.  If you want more depth to this introduction and overview, please follow them.  Thanks!

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31 thoughts on “On (CowPuckey)

  1. Politics is a lot like arguing with a child anymore. But I see your point, again, that its just a reflection of the world we live in.

    Why didn’t you use the full word bulls**t? I use it all the time, and since it is the title of a book I think its acceptable even in polite company.

  2. I think what to do about it is easy – call it for what it is. Doesn’t seem to need academic papers and all that jazz to me. BS is just BS.

    But I do appreciate you tying this to con men. The world is full of snakeoil salesmen. Bernie Madoff’s only problem was that he was too honest about what he was doing.

  3. Anna: You can use the term if you want, and I don’t mind the word bullshit in the comments. The problem is that I’m from a different social class than a philosophy prof and I’m trying to get the message out as widely as I can. I decided that I want this to be safe for general discussion.

    Dale: Bingo on Madoff. Goldman may not have violated any laws with their bullshit, but the lies told by Madoff were enough to convict him. That’s a great example of why bullshit is more corrosive than an outright lie. Excellent addition, thanks!

  4. Hmm very thought provoking, Dale maybe right in that BS is just pure BS – but what interests me most about your article is the investigation into why? To understand why people feel the necessity to employ this technique I thnks makes us better equiped to deal effectively with it. Much food for thought – thanks for the gray matter injection Erik.

  5. This reminds me of watching the legislature in session last Friday nite on tv. A Republican legislature wanted an amendment to the voluntary checkoff for political campaigns (actually very democratizing and common cause supports it) to name it “I’ve been taxed enuf” checkoff. I mean good god one would hope to never see this behavior on a church board, a school board, a non profit or business board but here she was in all her ingloriousness wasting about 10 minutes of time. Later on there was serious discussion on tax credits for rural seasonal business. Somewhat engrossing in a good way. I really think 99.5% of the population does not have the temper-
    ment for lawmaking myself included.

  6. There is just so much bullshit in the world, no one cares if anything is true or false anymore. People just say anything to sell their product or get their way. I agree that this is individualism run riot but I have no idea how to fix it.

  7. I think a certain amount of bullshit is always with us – good fiction might qualify, if you think about it. Where I think we get into trouble is when people start to believe their own BS. Dan, that legislator who took the time out of everyone’s deliberations probably does believe their own BS, meaning that they are in a world of trouble – trouble they want to project onto the rest of the world rather than solve problems.

    This is why I talk about connections to the world – people who are connected might still tell a tall tale once in a while, but like Mark Twain they at least have the decency to revel in being a liar (as Twain called himself). It’s the relationship to the rest of the world where it becomes a problem, and for many people who believe their own BS there is little connection to reality or to other people.

    Connection is the answer. People who are connected are going to be far more interested in troubleshooting than believing that there just isn’t a problem for them. That’s my take.

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  10. “That doesn’t stop people from believing what they want, of course. A good con, at the heart of it, is about the Bigger Better Deal (BBD) being used to make someone’s imagination work against their common sense. A world that has a deep lust for the Bigger and Better is always going to be waiting for someone with the right (CowPuckey) to come along.”

    The wisdom contained in this short paragraph is incredible. It is an excellent articulation of how right-of-center ‘populism’ gets started. Not only do the BS merchants on the right create things like the birther movement, the AZ immigration law, and the hatred of all things even remotely related to a social safety net, but in addition to overwhelming one’s ‘common sense’, they spur people on to work against their own interests. The estate tax debate comes to mind: while most of the anti-tax folks use it as the poster child for unfairness, they never seem to realize that unless they are millionaires, they wouldn’t pay the damn tax to begin with! They are actually making the argument to maintain and extend the growing gap between rich and poor! They think that they are nearly rich (if only we didn’t have to pay taxes) rather than the reality of them being nearly poor (paycheck to paycheck living, one illness away from homelessness, etc.). This is not some simple epithet that I throw out there, it is really more of a personal example!

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