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The Not So Noble Art of Bullshit

Politicians have always been among the least trusted of people.They have always had a seemingly limitless capacity to bend, stretch, embroider and be economical with the truth. There has, however, in the past been a limit or perhaps more a Rubicon that you cross at your peril. Back in the days of Harold MacMillan, Rab Butler, Ian McLeod, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson and so on, including, though it sticks in my throat to say it, Margaret Thatcher and her posse. If someone told an outright, barefaced lie, and were found out, then their career, in public life anyway, was effectively over. In addition in those days we had real investigative journalists so the chances of being found out were quite large. Things started to go bad in the time of Blair with the rise of “spin doctors”, which coincided with large drops in circulation for newspapers and the advent of the powerful, rich owners who were prepared to subsidise a loss-making fourth estate in return for the influence it gave them and the opportunity to mould the world into their preferred shape.

The deterioration in standards continued but new depths were plumbed when the Trump mob took over in the big city and the Johnson gang rode into town. Being the ones left standing in the gunfight at the Brexit Corral gave them a carte blanche to rewrite the rule book as they assumed command everywhere. Lying was now in. To be strictly accurate the correct technical term for what they do is “bullshit”, which has moved from its slang origins to attain academic respectability after the seminal paper “On Bullshit” by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt and subsequent publications. The skill to recognise or call BS is now taught in some American schools and colleges; it might be a very good idea to introduce that into the core curriculum everywhere. A liar knows what the truth is and deliberately tries to induce a belief in something known to be untrue. A bullshitter has a required effect in mind, and works back from that to determine what to say and do now in order to produce that desired effect.

The important difference is that the bullshitter does not care, or probably even know, if any of what they say is true, it is only the effect that matters. In the nature of things most of what they say is untrue but peppered with some accidental truths. For example, the number of tests for Covid-19 carried out in this country has been extremely low compared to most other comparable countries, which is not something a politician would like to admit. They want the public to think they are doing a good job. A liar, knowing the truth, would claim that sufficient tests were being done, knowing it to be untrue; they might quote a figure from the one area where a decent number were happening if they were pressed about actual numbers, but they would try not to give too much detail that might result in them being found out. The bullshitter would not worry at all about being found out. They would decide how many tests would be enough to justify the claim and quote that figure without even considering how large the actual number is. In order to prove them wrong someone would have to be prepared to put in the work to negotiate the maze of statistics to get the actual number and by that time the world would have moved on, even if they could find someone prepared to publish, and, above all, the desired effect would have been achieved. Enough people would have accepted the made up figure in lieu of any other information to the contrary that was readily available to them. Bullshit borrows heavily from what is now the science of propaganda. This is why the likes of Dominic Cummings are becoming so important; they are extremely skilful bullshitters.

It can be very difficult to pin down a bullshitter. Even the amateur bullshitter, we have all met them, seeking the effect of being thought knowledgeable about a subject, will spout a load of made up nonsense with a few half remembered gems, but will very soon change the subject or move away in the face of genuine knowledge or detailed questioning. In the same way the professional bullshitting politician will avoid interviews where possible and seek to exclude any journalists who have the temerity to actually investigate. They will choose a medium, preferably from the social media, which keeps reality at a distance so they can make their pronouncements unhindered by any audience response, or they will delegate where possible and, where not, carefully select the questioners that they are prepared to face.

Is there anything we can do to counter this absolutely disgraceful new weapon in the armoury of the elite? Well, yes, the obvious answer is not to vote these monsters into power in the first place. This is, however, easier said than done. The very quality that we are talking about can be used to its greatest effect at election times, especially when backed and magnified by one of the most effective propaganda machines the world has ever seen. It can be difficult to blame people who have a hard enough time managing their lives through extremely hazardous times, if they are taken in by such a powerful machine wielded by such expert users. The obvious example of this happening, which will undoubtedly become a classic example in future textbooks, is the character assassination of Jeremy Corbyn. How a thoroughly decent, honest person who has tirelessly and consistently fought for peace and against racism in all its forms can become universally thought of as an anti-semite and terrorist supporter is quite unbelievable, except that it happened.

It is somewhat easier to make progress with younger people who have real concerns about the world they are inheriting and real problems eking out a reasonable existence. The big problem lies with the older generation, more numerous than before, secure in their triple-locked pensions and houses bought before prices went through the roof, who quite genuinely believe the political world is much the same as it was 50 years ago with at least an element of truth in everything they hear. They must be taught that the world outside their cosy cottages really has changed drastically for the worse and everyone has to be taught how to “call BS”, recognize and reject bullshit. Once that is done we can start pushing out the real information and build a new society based on truth and mutual respect. Then we can really chuck those *!&%ing bullshitters out!

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