OK, I’m using slightly more civil language in this post.
A key point that Harry G Frankfurt makes in his book on BS is that it is a form of misrepresentation that falls short of outright lying. A liar at least knows what the truth is and chooses not to tell it. BS is indifferent, unaware or ignorant of the truth; those who engage in it misrepresent and distort the truth.
Frankfurt says this in an interview with Bryan Appleyard,
“I think bullshit is an insidious threat to one of the fundamental values of civilization, which is respect for the truth, and I take this quite seriously.”
We live in a culture shaped by a collapse in the notion of public truth. Truth has been atomized into myriad mini-truths, each the product of cultural and social forces and reflected in what particular communities believe. These myriad truths compete with each other in the public square. This is a radical democratization of truth. Truth starts from the bottom up (the demos) and so truth becomes a battle ground, intimately linked with power, violence and competing political agendas.
BS is a natural consequence the collapse of public truth. Sometimes it’s cynically intentional, but often just because there is nothing else but hype, spin and half-truth.
The radical democratization of truth has been fostered by the Web. The ‘truth’ of each person’s life is shared in intimate detail on Facebook. Indeed Facebook and blogging (note to self) are perfect vehicles for vast amounts of BS. Each user, either intentionally or not, constructs an imagined identity that he or she wants the world to see. And that identity may be a long way from the truth.
Christian blogger Ben Meyers’ excellent and unusually honest post here (I mean unusual for blogging in general not specifically for him!) is a great illustration. I don’t think of his words as a confession so much as an open acknowledgement of how easy and instinctive it is to BS – to present a partial truth for our own benefit, perhaps without even being aware of it at the time – especially on an apparently ‘anonymous’ medium like the Web. It’s harder to BS people face-to-face over the long term – but still possible!
Anyway, back to Bonhoeffer and Frankfurt on truth. Frankfurt says something very interesting here. Humans, even postmodern ones, like to think they can know the truth about themselves. But we don’t and can’t really even know ourselves. Such knowledge only comes from knowing all about the wider social, political, genetic, cultural and personal context for our lives (to mention just a few variables). We are far more deeply shaped by such factors than we realize. You could say that this leaves us sinking in a sea of BS, yet Frankfurt hopes for more,
“I think people are starving for the truth, I think they’re sick of bullshit and yearning for straight talk and some relief from this flood of bullshit they feel assaulted by. I suppose I imagine this book will do something to help deal with the problem.”
But it is not at all clear what the basis of such hope is. If we can’t even know the truth about ourselves, where is truth, self-knowledge, transparency and honesty going to come from?
Bonhoeffer agrees with Frankfurt on the problem – humans cannot know the truth themselves. But he does not leave things there. It is only in God’s revelation that the untruth of human self-understanding is made apparent. It is in Christ that we can know and see the truth about ourselves and our world. The call for the Christian is to speak the truth as it exists in God. True reality, in other words, can only be known in and through Jesus Christ.
This means that the task for the Christian church is ‘simply’ to speak the truth – to preach and live the gospel truthfully to ourselves, to fellow Christians and to the world.
This is not saying Christians know the truth perfectly, but living in God’s truth will help identify the un-truths and half-truths pedaled furiously in a culture bereft of revelation. Such truth speaking is not just to do with the big questions of life. Truth is found in the small things. Jesus’ words speak often of trustworthiness and integrity being forged in the small ethical challenges of everyday life. Such truth is a life lived in light of the gospel story.
“All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Mt 5:37)
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. (Luke 16:10)
It is such consistent truth speaking that prepares the ground for times of testing, when speaking the truth may cost everything. And it is such testing that will reveal BS for what it is – a façade.
Bonhoeffer did not talk BS, he lived truth right to the end.
Comments, as ever, welcome.