It is a consequence of the wide diffusion of the public word through the newspapers and the wireless that the essential character and the limits of the various different words are no longer clearly felt and that, for example, the special quality of the personal word is almost entirely destroyed. Genuine words are replaced by idle chatter. Words no longer possess any weight. There is too much talk. And when the limits of the various words are obliterated, when words become rootless and homeless, then the word loses truth, and then indeed there must almost inevitably be lying. When the various orders of life no longer respect one another, words become untrue. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 329-30.
These words were written in the context of Hitler and the twisting of words to serve a power-hungry ideology. But I think that they remain startlingly prophetic today.
We in the West are not under threat of a totalitarian regime. But we do live in a culture where words have lost weight. Where we are saturated with words that that are untrue or half-true and where we have become deeply sceptical of truth-claims of any sort – whether by politicans, advertisers, bankers, historians, celebrities, public relations people, church leaders – you add your own names here.
This post-modern turn (don’t hear that word so much these days) is brilliantly summed up in Bonhoeffer’s description of rootless and homeless words serving the hidden agendas of orders of life that no longer respect each other.
What is the Credit Crunch but a massive con-game built around incomprehensible banking ‘products’ to describe immoral and high-risk behaviour with other people’s money designed to make an elite very rich and to hell with the consequences for the wider population?
What is much of the advertising industry but a cynical game with words, often designed to hide the truth or represent a half truth in order to make a product sell?
Reading Bonhoeffer, it is apparent that the weightlessness of untrue words is not a new thing. But may I suggest that what in his day was the extraordinary manipulation of the public mind has in our day become routine?
Or to put it another way, we swim in a daily tide of bullshit and we hardly even notice.
Now you may think that a rather a crude thing to say on this normally politie blog and you’d be right. Certainly Bonhoeffer did not use this word! But his words above are an elegant way of describing bullshit.
Why use that word? Well, some very interesting work has been done on bullshit by Yale and Princeton philosopher Harry G Frankfurt. He published a bestseller of a book On Bullshit. The essence of bullshit he says is a “lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are”. He argues that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are because it eats away at respect for the truth. Which sounds very much like Bonhoeffer.
What for you are examples of bullshit? How have you been bullshitted today?
More on this in the next post.
Comments, as ever, welcome.