One would think that a bullshitter is one who throws out bullshit. Well, this may be true of a crude or unsophisticated bullshitter, but it is not true of a master bullshitter.
Before we get to that, let us think of what kinds of people we tend to classify as bullshitters. A few types immediately come to mind: salesmen, politicians, and lawyers. What do they have in common? Well, they are all trying to sell or convince us of something. This is obvious with the salesperson. His goal is to have us buy whatever he is selling. The politician wants us to give him our vote, and the lawyer wants us to bring in the verdict he is fighting for. Harry Frankfurt says that the bullshitter is slovenly with truth. Yes and no. Personally, he may have a high regard for truth; but in the context of his sales pitch, he may think it irrelevant what the truth is as long as he can persuade us.
The case which fits Frankfurt’s idea of a bullshitter as slovenly and careless with the truth is a student who has been assigned to write a 10 page paper, and has exhausted his idea at the end of the second page. His goal is not to write about the truth; his goal is to get a good grade, at least a passing grade; not to fail. So, he uses whatever filler material seems appropriate, including plagarism. This, to me, is a paradigm of Frankfurt’s bullshitter as indifferent to truth. There are also the cases where an ignorant person is asked for his opinion, and he offers it as if it were based of some source of information or some critical reflection, but, in reality, is just something that popped into his head. Such a person is acting for the sake of making an impression, without really a concern for the truth. And such a person too fits Frankfurt’s definition of a bullshitter as someone who is indifferent to the truth.
However, a person who really does not care about truth (or the making of appraisals) is not a bullshitter, but a fool. Frankfurt’s description of a bullshitter as indifferent to truth is better labeled as a description of a fool. A fool is someone who is indifferent to appraisals (including the truth) or as someone who is incapable of making good appraisals.
The sophisticated bullshitter, in contradistinction to Frankfurter’s indifferent bullshitter, is very much interested in the truth. He knows that truth is power. The sophisticated bullshitter — qua salesman, politician, and lawyer — convinces us not by resorting to bullshit, but by selective omissions. The car salesman points out all the good features of the car, but fails to mention the bad features.
The best bullshitters are newspeople and journalists who select the news and slant it as they wish. They convince us by omission. Parodying the law, they tell us the truth and nothing but the truth, but they omit to tell us the whole truth. And it is in this ability to omit and slant that we have the makings of a sophisticated bullshitter.
Let me illustrate. I have said that a sophisticated bullshitter will manipulate his rhetoric through omissions of relevant information, which is, in fact, how much of the news media manipulate information. For example, in the present presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders was hardly mentioned, until in the later stages of campaigning when it became awkward not to mention him. Now that the Republican and Democratic Parties have picked their nominees for president, note that Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, is hardly ever mentioned. Talking about Stein would be a form of advertisement for her, and since the corporate world does not want Stein to be president, the strategy is to act as if she did not exist. By not mentioning Stein, the media is making it appear that the only (viable candidates are Clinton and Trump. [As it turned out, Trump won despite the media’s attempt to ridicule him. Why? Because instead of ignoring him as they did with Sanders and Stein, they gave him an enormous amount of free publicity. But it doesn’t really matter who won for those in power or for us, both Trump and Clinton are agents of the oligarchs.]
Bullshitter as a deceiver
I was searching for a word for broadcasting information, and I thought that perhaps the word “propaganda” was used in this neutral way. But if it did have that meaning, it no longer has it. It now means broadcasting deceptive and slanted information. I then looked up the wikipedia entry for “deception.” It listed the following forms of deception:
- Lies: making up information or giving information that is the opposite or very different from the truth.
- Equivocations: making an indirect, ambiguous, or contradictory statement.
- Concealments: omitting information that is important or relevant to the given context, or engaging in behavior that helps hide relevant information.
- Exaggerations: overstatement or stretching the truth to a degree.
- Understatements: minimization or downplaying aspects of the truth.
Yes, a sophisticated bullshitter would use all these except for lies. Lies are for unsophisticated bullshitters — unless you are a leader of a country and keep repeating big lies.
Another technique for manipulation is to distract attention from the importan and relevant material to the unimportant and irrelevant. See: Distraction principle.
See Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.