Saturday, November 5, 2016

Donald Trump: Liar versus Bullshit Artist

Donald Trump has made any number of statements at variance with objective reality.  That thousands of American Muslims were caught on video cheering on 9-11.  That all the accusations of women who say he groped them have been decisively debunked.  That his massive tax cuts won't hurt revenues.  That he didn't say any number of things he was caught on tape saying.  This has led any number of people to call Trump a liar.

Others have claimed that he is worse than a liar -- he is a bullshit artist.  In this they rely heavily on Harry Frankfurt's essay On Bullshit, in which he claims that a lie is an intentionally false statement while bullshit is a statement made with indifference to whether it is true or false.  He regards this as making bullshit a greater threat to truth than lies:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
And again:
 Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He 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.
Well, if you will pardon my saying, bullshit!  In fact, in between these quotes the author has a passage discussing St. Augustine's view on lies, which is that lies in this sense are, in fact, very rare.  It is most unusual for anyone to seek out the truth for the purpose of taking a position against it.  Most people who lie do so for the sake of achieving some other goal.  In many (if not most) cases, they would be perfectly happy if their lies were true because it would be more convenient.  So, by this standard, the vast majority of lies are actually bullshit.

Even the author does not believe this.  When he seeks to evaluate Trump, he takes a somewhat different view.  For instance, he rates as actual lies Trump's assertion that thousands of New Jersey Muslims were caught on tape celebrating 9-11, that he knew nothing about David Duke and his ties to the Ku Klux Klan, or some of his more far-fetched statistics.  That is because these are actual factual allegation that can be proven or disproven.  By contrast, his statements that he makes the best taco bowls and Hispanics love him are vague to be actual lies and rate as bullshit instead.  He also rates Trump's promise to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants as bullshit, even though it is something subject to empircal verification, because it is made more with intent to demonstrate a certain outlook than with actual intent for it to translate into real-world actions.  So, that would appear to make a lie something that can be proven or disproven and bullshit something not subject to falsification.

Others have hinted at another distinction -- that lies consist of statements made in the belief that they are false, while bullshit consists of statements made in ignorance of their truth or falsity.  Frankfurt somewhat hints at this latter definition as well -- that one reason there is so much bullshit these days is that knowledge has expanded to the extent that most people know very little of all the information there is out there.  Certainly it seems fair to say that politicians holding forth on the subject of global warning are usually bullshitting in this sense -- they don't know anything about the subject and they are trying to sound as if they do.  But that misses another important point.  Ignorant people very often don't know that they are ignorant and think they know a great deal more than the actually do.  Anyone who actually knows that field (any field) will spot the fakery at once, but ordinary people will fall for it because the bullshitter's confidence seems convincing.  Trump is an absolute master of this.  So by this standard the whole business about the bullshitter being indifferent to the truth fails -- many masters of bullshit quite sincerely believe that they are right.

In any event, although there may be some truth to the definition of bullshit as holding forth on a subject one is ignorant about, my own definition of bullshit would be somewhat different.  If would address the question of the difference between lies and fiction.  The distinction between a lie and fiction is clear enough.  A lie is a factually inaccurate statement made with intent to convince people that it is factually true.  Fiction is a factually inaccurate statement made with the intent to entertain and the clear, unspoken understanding between the teller and the audience that it is not factually accurate and is intended purely to entertain and not to deceive.  Well, bullshit by my definition lies somewhere between a lie and fiction.  It is not factually accurate, and it is told mostly with the intent to entertain, rather than to deceive, but with the suggestion that it contains a grain of truth of indefinite size.  Indeed, part of the fun in bullshit may be the ambiguity about the size of that grain of truth.  It is, if you will, a form of consensual deception.  There may not be any deception at all, if the parties involved know each other well and have a good unspoken understanding about the size of the grain of truth involved in the representation.  Or it may be extremely deceptive and perhaps even a lie if it misleads as to the size of the grain of truth or, indeed, whether there is any grain of truth at all.

By this standard, most politician speeches are bullshit.  They are meant more to express affinity of values than to be taken literally.  Yet that grain of truth is presumed to be there -- that the politician considers this to be the ideal course of action, and will seek to enact something vaguely resembling this.  Patheos gives as one such example born-again Christian candidate Christine O'Donnell when she said, "I was dabbling in witchcraft, I've dabbled in Buddhism. I would have become a Hare Krishna but I didn't want to become a vegetarian. And that is honestly the reason why — because I'm Italian, I love meatballs!"  This statement is not factually accurate.  She did not, in fact, ever spend time as a Hare Krishna, and she would not have become one if only the religion had allowed her to eat meatballs.  But O'Donnell would doubtless be outraged at the suggestion that she was lying.  She would doubtless regard it as a joke, but one with a grain of truth -- that she really did shop around before becoming a born-again Christian.  In other words,  it is bullshit.

Or, consider another example, as applied to Trump in a non-political context.  This lawyer gives an opinion on Trump University:
It sure sounds like Trump University made false statements and promises. But from what I've seen, the best defense (though not necessarily the one that Trump will follow) is that anyone minimally rational would have recognized that all of the Trump University sales patter was puffery, trumpery,* and bullshit, the equivalent of saying your coffee shop offers the most amazing coffee in the universe.
This author would see claims that one's coffee shop makes the best coffee in the universe as bullshit -- something not meant to be taken literally, but intended nonetheless to convey that one's coffee is good.  Presumably Trump University's sales pitch was intended to convey that it had something of value to offer, or why would anyone bother signing up?  Trump (obviously) offers meaningless superlatives of this kind all the time -- NAFTA is the worst trade agreement of all time, the Iran nuclear deal is the biggest giveaway ever, Hillary's corruption is unprecedented in the history of our country, he alone can solve all our problems.  Does he expect anyone to take him at his word?  I won't even venture to guess.

And so I would say that Trump is a master of this kind of bullshit -- he makes wildly inflated statements always implying (usually wrongly) that there is some grain of truth in them.  He is also a major bullshitter in the sense of acting knowledgeable on subject he knows nothing about, which is basically all public policy whatever.  Oh, yes, and he also lies to an extraordinary degree.

In short, Trump goes well beyond the deception of normal politicians, or real estate salesman, for that matter, and takes it to unprecedented heights.  And he stands a good chance of being our next President.

*Trumpery in this context means nonsense or worthless items.  It has nothing to do with The Donald, but it fits him well.

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