TV bullshit and its effect on clear thinking

There’s a mild kind of bullshit which is common, entirely understandable, and produced by many of us, including me. But it’s insidious, and I’ll suggest that it might contribute to bigger problems.

Bullshit as Harry Frankfurt characterises it – in contrast to Jerry Cohen’s notion of bullshit – involves phoniness, indifference to truth. (See my earlier post for a comparison of Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s notions of bullshit, and some examples.)

In my view, bullshit is a matter of degree, and a mild form of Frankfurt-bullshit can often be found on TV, especially at the start of programmes.

Here are two recent examples from British television. The first is from top chef Michel Roux Jr., or rather, from whoever wrote the words which he read out at the start of the programme:

There’s nothing I’m more passionate about than what, how and why we eat and drink. … Something I’m obsessed by, just as you are, is a phenomenon that has literally taken over the world: baking. We’ve gone cupcake-crazy!

(from Food and Drink, episode 2: Baking, BBC2, 11 February 2013)

I love Michel Roux Jr. – I admire him, his cooking, his ideas, his personality, and I get a genuine buzz when he’s on my TV screen. But these comments are hard to swallow. Is there really nothing he’s more passionate about than why we eat and drink? Has baking really taken over the world? Have we really gone cupcake-crazy? Of course not, and Michel Roux Jr. doubtless does not think so either. He said these things, I assume, to create a nice, warm, positive, exciting, inclusive start to the show.

My second example is from Marcus du Sautoy, an Oxford professor, in a programme about measuring time:

Our modern day lives are completely driven by precise measurement. … Today, we can build clocks which lose one second in 138 million years. And now there are plans for a clock accurate to within one second over the lifetime of the university. What is it that drives us to such extremes of ever great precision? Why do we feel the need to quantify and measure, to impose order on the world around us?

(from Precision: The Measure of All Things, episode 1, BBC4, 10 June 2013)

Of course, our lives are not completely driven by precise measurement, and many of us do not feel the need to quantify and measure. But imagine that Professor du Sautoy had instead said: ‘Why do some people feel the need to quantify and measure, to impose order on the world around them?’ Clearly this would be a bad way to start the programme: rather than focusing on humans’ relationship with precise measurement, it would sound like a psychological exploration of why some people feel a bizarre need to quantify and order everything.

So, these over-generalisations are entirely understandable: they are an attempt to draw viewers in, make the programme seem important, in an accessible introduction. I’d probably do the same thing. In fact I’ve used similar tactics on this blog, implying that Derrida might be full of bullshit when I knew all along that I’d only be discussing one passage from Derrida which I didn’t even think was bullshit. As Harry Frankfurt says at the start of On Bullshit, we all produce bullshit; and there’s a slight whiff of bullshit to what I did there.

Nonetheless, while such mild bullshit is understandable, the problem is that it is also found in contexts where clarity and rigour matters. Consider these book titles:

  • Why Americans Hate Politics
  • Why Americans Hate Welfare
  • Why Americans Hate The Media
  • Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War
  • The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race
  • Why Americans Don’t Vote
  • Why Americans Still Don’t Vote

Wow! Poor Americans. Apparently, you all hate politics, welfare and the media. You all choose war. You can’t think straight about race. You don’t vote. And you still don’t vote.

My tongue is in my cheek, of course, but there’s a serious side to this: we can’t explain attitudes in the USA if we assume that all Americans hate politics, all hate the media, and so on.

Yet I often see this kind of overstatement in student essays. Similar overstatements crop up in academic studies of voting, as Patrick Dunleavy shows in his chapter in A New Handbook of Political Science. Richard Rorty, a prominent political theorist, often talked vaguely about what ‘we’ think. It’s very easy to make such mistakes – again, I know I do this too.

These aren’t examples of Frankfurt-bullshit: they are conceptual overstatements. But my worry is that the mild bullshit of TV programmes might contribute to these conceptual overstatements. I don’t have evidence for this – can anyone point me to any academic studies? – but my suspicion is that as we grow up, we learn to think in part by hearing how others speak, and mildly bullshitty conceptual overstatements that we often hear on TV can thus foster a looseness of thought that leads to non-bullshitty conceptual overstatements by academics. Mild TV bullshit isn’t the only cause: these errors were made long before TV! But the result is erroneous talk about what ‘Afghans’ think, how ‘the French’ behave, how ‘women’ and ‘men’ differ, and so on.

In short: however hard we try to get away from our upbringing, these older ways of thinking often sneak back in. My fear is thus that the mild bullshit of some TV programmes can sometimes have damaging longer term effects.

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