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.

Is Derrida full of bullshit? Part 2

Part 1 outlined two notions of bullshit: Harry Frankfurt’s notion of bullshit as phoniness or indifference to truth, and Jerry Cohen’s notion of bullshit as unclarifiable clarity.

We saw too that Cohen claimed – very naughtily, without references – that there is a lot of bullshit in Derrida. Such sentiments are quite widespread.

I’m only going to look at one passage by Derrida which has been called bullshit by Brian Leiter, a prominent philosopher who is bitingly critical of Derrida on his excellent blog, Leiter Reports. Leiter has a deliciously acerbic approach to ‘frauds and intellectual voyeurs who dabble in a lot of stuff they plainly don’t understand’. Leiter is a Nietzsche expert who reserves special vitriol for Derrida’s ‘preposterously stupid writings on Nietzsche’, the way Derrida ‘misreads the texts, in careless and often intentionally flippant ways, inventing meanings, lifting passages out of context, misunderstanding philosophical arguments, and on and on’.

I’ll focus solely on Leiter’s 2003 blog entry, ‘Derrida and Bullshit’, which attacks the ‘ridiculousness’ of Derrida’s comments on 9/11. This came from an interview with Derrida in October 2001. Here is an abbreviated version; you can see the full thing on p. 85 onwards of this book.

… this act of naming: a date and nothing more. … [T]he index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this ‘thing’ that has just happened … But this very thing … remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about.

9/11 turned the world upside down. Or at least 45 degrees to the side.

9/11 turned the world upside down.
Or at least 45 degrees to the side.

So, is this bullshit, on the Frankfurt and/or the Cohen notions of bullshit? I would say no. I take Derrida to be saying the following.

We often repeat the name ‘9/11’ without thinking much about it. But the words we use can be very revealing. Why do we try to reduce this complex event to such a simple term? Because the event is so complex we cannot capture it properly. Precisely by talking about it in such a simple way, we admit that we don’t really understand it.

If I have understood Derrida – tell me if I haven’t – this explanation is surely wrong. I’d guess that in most cases we call such events by a name, usually a place or a thing. For example:

  • Pearl Harbor, the Somme, Gallipoli, the Korean War
  • the Great Fire of London, Hurricane Katrina
  • Watergate, the execution of Charles I, the storming of the Bastille
  • Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez

My guess is that we are most likely to use a date where we cannot restrict an event to a place or name:

  • Arab Spring
  • (May) 1968 riots
  • the 1960s
  • Black Tuesday, Black Wednesday

But my guess is that such names are rarer: places or things are usually more identifiable.

So, why was 9/11 called ‘9/11’, ‘September the 11th’? My guess is that it would usually have been called ‘the attack on the Twin Towers’ except for the fact that there were two other locations: an attack on the Pentagon, and a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I’m also guessing that ‘9/11’ had a ring to it because of the shop ‘7/11’. If the attack had happened in just one location on February 9th, we’d simply refer to the place.

I might be wrong. Other explanations will be gratefully received. But if I’m right, it suggests that Derrida’s explanation is a bit pompous, and probably wrong, but it is not Frankfurt-bullshit, because it is not attempting to deceive anyone, and it is not Cohen-bullshit, because it is not unclarifiably unclear.

There’s a deeper point here, about method. Philosophers and literary theorists often ask questions which are essentially empirical. Derrida’s question is empirical: what explains the name ‘9-11’? To answer empirical questions, it is best to use a scientific approach – for example, looking at more than just one possible explanation. In the fortnight that BlauBlog has been active, this is a point I’ve already made several hundred and fifty times.

Derrida, however, does not think like a social scientist. As a result, his explanation only seems plausible because he has not considered the alternatives.

In short, what Derrida said is crap, but not bullshit.

Is Derrida full of bullshit? Part 1

Why is there so much bullshit in politics? Does a particular kind of bullshit flourish in French philosophy?

These are questions which have excited lots of academics in recent years, partly because they are fascinating and important questions – but mainly because it allows us to swear in public.

Academics discuss two key ideas of bullshit. (I’m working on a third, but it’s not ready yet.) The first and most famous comes from Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay On Bullshit. The essence of bullshit, for Frankfurt, ‘is not that it is false but that it is phony.’ The bullshitter may or may not deceive us, or intend to deceive us, about the alleged facts. ‘What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise.’ In short, the essence of Frankfurt-bullshit is phoniness, indifference to truth.

Frankfurt’s essay is great fun, but quite frustrating, not least because of the woeful lack of useful examples. The example Frankfurt discusses at greatest length, a comment by Wittgenstein, is not obviously bullshit, even for Frankfurt. He could have mentioned politicians who evade questions. ‘That’s not the real issue, the real issue is why my opponents are doing such-and-such.’

Apparently Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, often bullshits like this. For example, when asked whether two players would be fit for a game, and wanting to keep his opponents guessing, he replied ‘I know what you just asked, but I was so mesmerized and dazzled by your voice right there. You have got a great voice. I lost my train of thought.’

I used to bullshit when I started teaching and didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t understood a question. ‘It’s interesting you should ask that, because Aristotle says something similar …’, I might say. Then I could talk for a minute in the vain hope that my students would not spot my phoniness and my inability to answer their question.


The second idea of bullshit comes from Jerry Cohen, whose essay ‘Deeper Into Bullshit‘ defines bullshit as ‘unclarifiable unclarity’. Whereas Frankfurt-bullshit focuses on the mental state of the bullshitter, Cohen-bullshit focuses on the bullshitter’s output. Someone may be entirely sincere in what she says, but may still come out with something which is unclear and cannot be made clear.

Staggeringly, even Cohen doesn’t give useful examples. His only specific example, by Etienne Balibar, is probably not bullshit: it actually does make some sense, as Frankfurt himself points out in his response to Cohen in the book Contours of Agency.

Worse, Cohen feels free to make airy accusations about bullshit flourishing in French philosophy: ‘what I have read of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva leads me to think that there is a great deal of bullshit in their work’. Yet Cohen gives no references. Perhaps he was intending to do so before his untimely death. If not, I’m afraid we should not hesitate to describe Cohen’s comment as lazy and unscholarly. If he has read enough of these writers to see ‘a great deal of bullshit in their work’, then he should give us some examples. A claim as important and critical as this needs to be backed up.

Given Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s notions of bullshit, is Derrida full of bullshit? I will answer this in Part 2.