Sorting Through the Bullshit in America
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. ... The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.
- Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy, Princeton University, author of On Bullshit
In a recent news story, a New York Times reporter referred to “the siren call” of ISIS propaganda that motivated three teenage Muslim girls to fly from Britain to ISIS-controlled Syria. The girls were clearly frustrated, facing anti-Muslim prejudice and cultural pressures unique to Muslim girls. They clearly found no solace in “the siren call” of western, market-worshipping consumer society. The New York Times reporter did not characterize western culture this way, but it might be so characterized. The so-called Free Market is becoming a sort of religion.
The girls seemed caught in a delusional double bind, driven by hope for more satisfying lives. “[T]he girls spoke of leaving behind an immoral society to search for religious virtue and meaning,” the Times story reports. At least one of the girls is now married to an ISIS member. The question that interests me is how much of the competing pressures working on such vulnerable girls amounts to what Professor Frankfurt calls bullshit.
Bullshit is taking over the world. It’s certainly become a staple of our culture. ISIS and other religious entities employ it masterfully, via social media. When the Times reporter uses the phrase “siren call” she's using an antiquated, poetic term that carries some judgmental or patronizing spin. Reduced to its essence, the ISIS siren call would seem to be a form of what Professor Frankfurt calls bullshit, calculating statements and claims that exhibit no concern for the truth; influence and power is the goal. And as Frankfurt told Jon Stewart, the stuff is piling up higher every day. Marketing, advertising and public relations reeks of it. Religion makes it sound holy. In the struggle for the bottom line, bullshit consumes more and more of the informational oxygen in the room. Polarization is the rule everywhere, leading to factional struggles that assure bullshit an honored space, as a devotion to the serious search for truth becomes more a quaint and naïve posture. Well, that is, unless the intellectual search is in the service of business efficiency, technological advancement or profit. The fact is, bullshit rules.
In a recent essay in Harper’s called “How College Sold Its Soul ... and Surrendered to the Market,” William Deresiewicz writes that what we used to call a “liberal education” -- a curriculum that emphasized accumulating a breadth of knowledge and the capacity for critical thinking in order to produce a responsible citizen -- is being winnowed out of existence and replaced by institutions that emphasize training to be a winner in what is called “neo-liberalism” -- that is, market-oriented capitalism.