Thursday, May 10, 2018



            I was going to write a post about assholes. My original question, which a few years ago I asked a few not-very-interested friends, was whether the term only applies to men, or whether any women have been or could be given the label. The word may be difficult to define, and I’ll go with Supreme Court Justice Potter, who could not define pornography, but, “I know it when I see it.” Being an asshole has something to do with arrogance and a lack of respect for others, with the volume turned up to an annoying level. I recall taking my young sons to a Michigan football game, and one of the male students took off his shirt and started some sort of drunken rant. Immediately hundreds of his fellow students started chanting, “Ass-hole! Ass-hole!” They knew one when they saw one.

            Can women be assholes? I suppose it’s possible, but rare. This may be because women have a nobler and kinder nature than men, as Kim might argue. I suspect, however, it’s because so few women are in positions of power that it’s not safe for them to behave like assholes. We’ll see what happens when women attain more power, a trend that I am looking forward to, provided I do not have to relinquish control of our tv remote.

            But I’m not writing about assholes. I’m writing about bullshit. So please disregard the above bullshit about assholes.

            I recently purchased brief book entitled On Bullshit, written by Harry G. Frankfurt, a “renowned moral philosopher” at Princeton. I have not yet read the book, as I do not want his academic wisdom to cloud my thinking. (This is why I prefer blogging to researched-based writing – I’m a product of the post-truth society.)

            So – what is bullshit?

            First of all, it’s a great word to pronounce. It starts with that explosive “b,” then moves to the sinister snake-like “sssshhhh,” and then closing with the sharp “t” that appears to end all debate. The word also has a choice of cadences: accent on the first syllable, or, as a forceful accusation, strong accents on both syllables.

            [Pause here to let readers experiment aloud with different pronunciations . . .. Feels good, doesn’t it?]

            If you think of bullshit simply as a deliberate lie, you are wrong.  Many people are capable of bullshitting themselves, so there is more to it. Perhaps it’s closer to the mark to see bullshit as an unsubstantiated statement presented as if it had some sort of link to reality, through science, logic, or a trail of evidence that folks could check if they wanted. In fact, one of the characteristics of bullshitters is that they feel that their voice, or their personality, is all that is required to have a claim accepted. This may explain why so many bullshitters are assholes. Bullshitters are not simply liars because they are not concerned with the truth, either stating it or misrepresenting it. They are mainly concerned with magnifying and promoting their own egos – the narcissistic assholes!

            Let me digress here into personal experience. In my freshman year at Amherst, the second paper I submitted to my English 1-2 professor earned me a one-word comment: “Bullshit!” I felt the exclamation point a bit of overkill. (My first essay, three paragraphs long, earned the comment, “You should have omitted the first two paragraphs and rewritten the third.” Later in the semester: “When, oh when will you write something I can praise?”) Professor Baird was no doubt right that my early bullshit writing had no concern for the truth – what does a college freshman know or care about the truth? – but I was not massaging my ego, unless I was giving CPR to my ego in an attempt to get a pulse.

            Years later, with Professor Baird’s “Bullshit!” still ringing in my ears, I set up my own gentler version of the comment by custom-making two rubber stamps to use on my students’ essays. One said, “Prove it!” and the other, “Bull!” (Yes, with exclamation points.) I used them sparingly and deservedly – I know it when I smell it. I suspect that some of my students were trying to collect my stamped comments as trophies.

            You are probably wondering how the word “bullshit” came to be associated with the Bullshit Phenomenon. The term goes back to a ritual practiced in a small village in northern England, located at the edge of the Fecal Mountains. Every year, on the spring equinox, villager elders would select the person, usually a man, who had been most obnoxious in presenting blatantly unsubstantiated claims. This person would be placed in a pen with the fiercest bull that the farmers could find. Trembling with fear, the man would most likely shit his pants while the villagers shouted, “Bull-shit! Bull-shit!” As the practice evolved, villagers would use the term in anticipation of the ritual, directing it at offenses as they occurred. The word caught on, and it is now known worldwide with no translation needed.

            Now – on to Professor Frankfurt’s book. A quick thumb-through revealed references to Plato and Pascal. This won’t be bullshit – it will be philosophy.

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