Saturday, August 09, 2008

BS is nothing without the shit

Without the word “shit,” bullshit is nothing but bull.

Pity the bull. Why, of all animals, has this beast of burden together with its excrement become the most popular expletive in the English language today? Of course, we have heard the use of horse, pig or chicken as apt derogatory substitutes, but nothing surpasses bullshit.

Why the bull would take the particular honour of dignifying its waste over other animals beguiles many. The word bull has both positive and negative connotations. A bull could be an exceptionally strong and aggressive person or a business optimist who buys commodities or securities in anticipation of a rise in prices. Used as slang, bull could mean foolish, deceitful or boastful language, or insolent talk or behaviour. Or it could refer to an official document issued by the pope. Or perhaps, a gross blunder in logical speech or expression, or a ludicrously self-contradictory or nonsensical statement.

The use of the word “bull” to refer to nonsense dates back to the 17th century, and may have been derived from the old French word boul, meaning, “fraud, deceit.”

But combined with the word “shit,” the word “bullshit” becomes vulgar, referring to something worthless, deceptive or insincere. Used as a verb, bullshit means to speak insincerely or without regard for fact or truth.

The most popular consensus is that the term “bullshit” was first used sometime in 1910 when T.S. Eliot was said to have mistakenly sent either to Wyndham Lewis or Ezra Pound a copy of his bawdy verse called “Bullshit and the Ballad of Big Louise.” The 1916 version of this Eliot's poem was called The Triumph of Bullshit. As an American slang, “bullshit” came into popular usage during World War II.

The word bullshit has also become the subject of a philosophical treatise, or to some perhaps a nauseating dialectic, by Harry G. Frankfurt, a renowned moral philosopher and professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University. Frankfurt’s book, On Bullshit, is a compact little book consisting of a mere 67 pages. Judging by its spare appearance, and without reading its content, it can appear to be a very deceptive book.

In his analysis of bullshit, Frankfurt compared the word with Wittgenstein’s disdain of “non-sense” talk and connected it with the popular concept of a “bull session” where participants exchange unusual views without commitment or belief in what they are saying. Statements made in a bull session, he wrote, are like bullshit in that they are both unconstrained by a concern with truth.

Bullshit is unavoidable, said Frankfurt, whenever someone is required to talk without knowing what he is talking about, something that is very common in public life. Apparently, he was referring to politicians who have obligations or opportunities to speak about topics which they may have no knowledge of relevant facts. A recent example which comes to mind is George W. Bush when he talked about the necessity and justification of the war in Iraq. Although Bush might appear to be lying, he, in fact, was bullshitting.

Frankfurt wrote that “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” The essential nature of bullshit is when a statement is made without concern with the truth, that it need not be false. But because the bullshitter does not pay attention to the truth at all, Frankfurt opined that “bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”

There is so much bullshit around us and Frankfurt acknowledged it as one of the most salient features of our culture. Why is there so much bullshit? As we communicate more, due to a proliferation of different media by which we are able to express whatever we want, the line between what is true and what is false oftentimes becomes blurred. This also undermines the value of objective inquiry, which drives us from the pursuit of truth to saying things just to satisfy others who believe we have opinions about everything. Thus, we have all sorts of political spins or whatever takes you call them about almost everything from the conduct of our country’s affairs to who’s the next American Idol.

Perhaps, we have stooped down so low that we have forgotten our commitment to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. We are quick to make judgments or express opinions by regurgitating what we hear from CNN or TV talk shows, or from YouTube or the Internet that we find it so convenient to brush aside our obligation to ourselves to inquire and verify all the bullshit that is being fed to us. What we don’t know is that we might be disregarding the meat and the substance from these various sources, and instead ingesting the real shit.

At the end of the day, as the cliché goes, there will be no more bull left around but shit. The word “shit” may be the ultimate survivor of this popular invective that so enamoured people from all walks of life, including philosophers, poets and politicians. It’s shorter but may cover every conceivable situation, and it is also less impolite and not as offensive than the other four-letter expletive in common usage.

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