Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Bullshit Matrix

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, bullshit detector.”
— Ernest Hemingway

What’s the difference between a lie, a false statement, a misrepresentation, spin, or simply calling it wrong?

Why are the press so reluctant to say someone’s lied?

Why are the press so reluctant to call “bullshit”?

On lying, I suspect the press are reluctant because it ascribes motive and someone’s inner thoughts, which generally aren’t verifiable. There may also be legal issues regarding libel and slander for “lie.” In any case, we often get “false statement,” “misrepresentation” and other careful formulations.

In his 6/1/06 column ”Bush’s Lie” Dan Froomkin observed:

Lying is probably the one word mainstream journalists are the most averse to using when recounting what the president said -- even when they know he's not telling the truth. The act of lying requires not just the presentation of false information, but an intention to deceive. Reporters -- and, particularly editors -- are notoriously resistant to ascribe such volition without ironclad evidence.

But there's really no other way to describe what Bush said Thursday. Press secretary Tony Snow's widely-quoted explanation that Bush's statement [about the future of Treasury Secretary John Snow] was in some way "artfully worded" is just plain wrong.

It may not have been an important lie. And there are some mitigating factors: It was, after all, a personnel matter and there was some possibly legitimate concern about the financial markets. But it couldn't be more clear that Bush was being intentionally deceptive.

The bigger issue is not the word choice of the reporters in question. It’s that, as Froomkin noted, “Several White House correspondents dutifully reported Snow's explanation -- but neglected to note that it doesn't wash.” He goes on to consider:

How hard is it for reporters to call what Bush says a lie? Consider Dana Milbank's near-legendary front-page Washington Post story from October 2002, headlined: "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable."

Milbank wrote that some of Bush's statements "were dubious, if not wrong"; that Bush's "rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy"; that he was guilty of "distortions and exaggerations"; that he had "taken some liberties," "omitted qualifiers," and made assertions that "simply outpace the facts."

But you won't find the word lie in there anywhere. It just won't get by the editors.

The Milbank piece linked above is well worth a read. The issue of lying was also the key concern of two posts by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo back in October 2004, the height of the Kerry and Bush presidential campaigns. On 10/8/04, he wrote (emphasis mine):

Will the canons of journalistic objectivity buckle under the weight of the president's lies?

That's the question raised, albeit implicitly, in an article in the Times today by Adam Nagourney and Richard Stevenson entitled "In His New Attacks, Bush Pushes Limit on the Facts."

The awkward generosity of that headline touches the essence of the problem. It's obvious to pretty much everyone watching these final weeks of the campaign that in response to the setback of the first debate the president's advisors decided that he would only be able to win by moving from harsh attacks and distortions of his opponent's record to straight out lies.

Yet by the rules of daily newspaper and television journalism it's not possible to quite say that -- a blind spot of the profession
which Mike Kinsley has spoken about eloquently for many years.


They can't get themselves to say it, even though the authors of the piece, Nagourney and Stevenson, are seasoned political reporters who know the relevant facts perfectly well enough to make the judgment themselves.

This isn't an indictment of these two reporters. It's a recognition of the system they're working in, and the tactical advantages it gives to liars.

Back in October 2004, rightwing bloggers and the Bush administration were crying scandal over the bias they claimed was in a leaked internal memo by Mark Halperin of ABC News. Howard Kurtz related some of the key lines:

"Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and [makes] mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win," Halperin wrote. While both sides should be held accountable, "that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that." Complaints by the Bush camp, Halperin said, are "all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped-up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions."

(The Kurtz piece contains some other valuable material about Bush’s distortions and reporters being susceptible to political parties gaming them as the referee.)

Marshall weighed on the Mark Halperin memo on 10/9/04 (emphasis mine):

Various right-wing barkers are trying to make it out as though Halperin has been caught in some impolitic or embarrassing remark. But quite the contrary is the case.

This is simply a news organization trying to grapple with the same reality that every respectable news outlet is now dealing with -- how to report on the fusillade of lies the Bush campaign has decided to use against John Kerry in the final weeks of the campaign.

The plain intent of the memo is to tell ABC reporters that they should feel neither obligated nor permitted to equate the level of deceptiveness of the Kerry and Bush campaign's if and when they are in fact not equal.

Everyone can see that they are not equal. Halperin is just saying it. And in doing so he has run smack into the epistemological relativism that now defines the Republican party.

The most noteworthy thing I've seen in the right-wing response is that there seems to be little effort to deny or engage the question of whether the Bush campaign is being qualitatively more dishonest than the Kerry campaign. All the whining is focused on the fact that any news organization would have the temerity to try to distinguish between them.

Which gets us to a key irony of the conservative assault on the concept of journalistic objectivity and claims of media bias. Though they attack the very notion that journalistic objectivity is practiced by the mainstream (i.e., non-Fox) media, they are most often -- and certainly in this case -- its great beneficiaries in as much as the failing of the current norm of objectivity is that it advantages liars. No surprise they'd want to maintain that advantage.

All these issues of lying and honesty could benefit from use of an invaluable term: bullshit. In Professor Harry G. Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit, a bullshitter is someone who may accidentally speak the truth, but simply doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not. Or as he puts it, "It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit." Slate’s Timothy Noah wrote a good piece on Frankfurt’s book back in March 2005. Although some of his references are dated, his larger points are valuable, as when he observes:

Frankfurt's definition is provocative because it allows for the little-recognized possibility that bullshit can be substantively true, and still be bullshit. Last summer, the Financial Times reported on evidence that the infamous war-justifying "16 words" in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address ("The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa") may have been true after all. Previously, a consensus had dismissed the Bush administration's charge that Iraq had sought to buy yellowcake from Niger (implicit in Bush's use of the word "learned" rather than "concluded") as outright bullshit—a lie, even. Did the FT's stories mean that the 16 words might not be bullshit? No. They meant the 16 words might be true, but still didn't legitimize the shoddy White House research that had led to their inclusion in the speech. When those words were written into the speech, the president and his staff lacked the evidence needed to support them. They were bullshitting. The 16 words therefore remain bullshit, and will continue to remain bullshit even if the charge is eventually proved true.

More often, of course, bullshit is not true, in the same sense that a stopped clock is wrong 1,438 out of 1,440 minutes per day. Is bullshit as bad as a lie? Frankfurt thinks it's worse:

Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. ...The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

(Frankfurt discussed his book with Washington Post readers on 7/1/05.)

The benefits of bullshit — err, of using the term bullshit — should be obvious. Every time Cheney speaks, the question arises: did he lie? In most cases, he’s either lying or delusional, or some mixture of the two. However, it’s pretty safe to say he’s bullshitting. He really does not care what the hell he says.

Dan Froomkin weighed in on this on 11/30/06 over at Nieman Watchdog in a great piece, ”On Calling Bullshit”:

What is it about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that makes them so refreshing and attractive to a wide variety of viewers (including those so-important younger ones)? I would argue that, more than anything else, it is that they enthusiastically call bullshit.

Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. The relentless spinning is enough to make anyone dizzy, and some of our most important political battles are about competing views of reality more than they are about policy choices. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy.

In any case, one of the great strengths about the blogosphere — well, the liberal blogosphere, anyway — is its willingness to call bullshit. Still, there are so many flavors of lying and bullshit I thought it might be useful to create a “Bullshit Matrix.” What follows is twelve loose categories of discourse ranging from truth-telling to lying, with plenty of degrees of bullshit in-between. The factors considered are Veracity, Balance, Intent, and Style:

(Click for a larger image)

Here’s the text:

Veracity: True, factual.
Balance: Not an issue in simple, narrow cases.
Intent: To inform others.
Style: Average citizen (in relevant circumstances).

Veracity: True, factual.
Balance: Considers and explores counter-arguments, generally gives larger context to subject and acknowledges dissenting views where relevant.
Intent: To inform others, for further understanding of an issue, or to propose a solution to a perceived problem. The truth or the public good is ultimately more important than "winning" or acclaim.
Style: Good academic papers, peer-reviewed research, serious conferences. Generally part of an evolving process/ ongoing search that corrects and acknowledges mistakes. Unusually honest and wise pundits.

Veracity: True, factual.
Balance: Seeks multiple perspectives, accounts.
Intent: To inform the public of the noteworthy events of the day and of matters of great importance.
Style: Reliable reporters at trusted papers or on trusted programs. Everyday good journalism, Pulitzer-quality features, good investigative books.

Veracity: Mostly true, factual.
Balance: Seeks multiple perspectives, accounts, at least cursorily.
Intent: To sell the paper/program, to land a scoop, to deliver a good story, to make a deadline, to inform the public, to not draw ire from influential parties.
Style: Headline journalism, Scoop-driven, prone to gossipy or shallow coverage and false equivalency (he said-she said). Scandals lead, even if dubious, debunks follow if at they appear at all.

Veracity: Uses (or exploits) some factual material.
Balance: Minimizes multiple perspectives and rebuttals, avoids giving meaningful context or doing research.
Intent: To sell the paper/program, to land a scoop, to deliver a good story, to smear a disliked target for personal, political or commercial reasons. A scandal sells better than a debunk of "opposition research."
Style: Matt Drudge, John Solomon, many of Bob Somersby's targets (Daily Howler), highly prejudicial or slanted accounts.

Veracity: Uses some factual material.
Balance: Generally only cites opposing views to rebut or attack them.
Intent: Persuasion; political aims, to tell the truth as the advocate sees it.
Style: Honest activist groups, sincere pundits.

Veracity: Selective use of factual material.
Balance: Acknowledges unavoidable facts, will not volunteer other perspectives but generally will acknowledge them if pressed.
Intent: Persuasion; political aims. The truth is subservient to a desired outcome. The speaker's loyalty is to their employer, not the general public. The speaker tries to avoid outright and obvious lies that can be bluntly challenged.
Style: A relatively honest PR flack on a good day, some pundits. Generally, anyone for whom the image of credibility is far more important than even their political aims.

Veracity: Selective use of factual material.
Balance: Straw man representation of perceived opponents, if any acknowledgement; knee-jerk contesting or outright denial of contrary but credible data, offers disingenuous arguments.
Intent: Persuasion, political aims, deception. "Winning the half hour" and muddying the waters, to misinform the public. The truth is subservient to a desired outcome, and the speaker is willing to distort the truth to "win" or score points for their faction. Leveling or repeating a false or misleading charge to "get it out there."
Style: Most of the professional punditry (especially conservatives), conservative think tanks, Tony Snow, some of the rightwing blogosphere. Anyone who counts on no fact-checking or truth-squadding. Personal attacks and assaults on opponents' credibility are standard. The merits of an opponent's argument are secondary, if addressed at all.

Veracity: Irrelevant; can be accidentally true, but tends to be false.
Balance: Any balance is accidental or forced.
Intent: Persuasion, political; deception, to misinform the public or otherwise avoid responsibility, or to inflate one's self or party. The truth is subservient to a desired outcome. The speaker doesn't care whether what is said is true or not.
Style: Almost every Iraq war hawk, especially those who still claim they're smarter than the folks who were consistently right. Some of the big guns of the rightwing blogosphere. Absolutely depends on no fact-checking, no one calling "bullshit," and an echo chamber.

Veracity: Highly selective use of factual material. Narrowly, technically true.
Balance: Context is deliberately omitted to give a false impression. Generally the full truth is the opposite of what the statement suggests.
Intent: To present a narrow version of the truth or make a technically true statement in order to give a false impression that a question has been answered or that a situation is the opposite of what it actually is.
Style: Normally a defensive move. Most official statements from the Bush administration fall into this category, especially when fighting against full disclosure. Dana Perino, Alberto Gonzales, your teenager explaining last night, Bush, Cheney.

Veracity: False, factually incorrect.
Balance: Straw man representation of perceived opponents, if any acknowledgement; contesting or outright denial of contrary, credible data.
Intent: Persuasion, political, causing harm to a foe or inflating one's group. to misinform the public. Often an additional, commercial goal. The truth is irrelevant to a desired outcome.
Style: Fox News (at its worst), Pravda under the Soviet Union, Joe McCarthy, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza. The remainder of the rightwing blogosphere. Anyone who knowingly lies for political purposes.

Veracity: False, factually incorrect.
Balance: None (unless it's an elaborate lie that requires some).
Intent: Persuasion, avoidance of responsibility and/or causing harm to a foe. The truth is deliberately denied or obscured for a desired outcome.
Style: Average citizen, your two year-old in the cookie jar, Nixon.

I’m certainly not settled on these distinctions or how I characterize them, and I don’t think they should be rigidly deployed. Still, they may prove useful as a framework. While rightwing bloggers would object to where I categorize them and other conservatives, the categories themselves are pretty neutral.

As the famous line from Daniel Patrick Moynihan goes, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Veracity and accuracy should not be partisan issues, and while there are partisan hacks who subvert the truth for political gain, there are also very passionate Democrats and Republicans who care about their causes but also deeply care about the truth. Intent is an essential element because a good reporter or scholar can pursue the truth in good faith and still make the occasional mistake, whereas hack journalists and hack pundits act in bad faith, pursuing a specific outcome, crafting and selling a misleading story to the public. There's a world of difference between a deductive approach or the scientific method (starting with a hypothesis but examining the facts) on the one hand, and beginning with the conclusion first and then rummaging about for points and arguments to support it (however flimsily) on the other hand. This is the wonk-hack divide. Ideally, when pundits clash in their natural habitat, the television studio, the truth and the soundest arguments should triumph. However, what is each pundit's real intent? To discover, explore, share, discuss and examine the truth? Or perhaps to "win the half hour," as Dan Froomkin puts it, score points, and try "win" an argument or encounter, even through disingenuous means?

As to the categories themselves: Truth-telling is supposed to be everyday truth-telling. Good Scholarship is distinguished by its accuracy, even-handedness, humility, and commitment to discovering the truth versus pushing a specific agenda. It also encourages corrections and a continued search for the truth.

There are three levels of journalism listed, ranging roughly from folks like Dana Priest, Muraay Waas and Dan Froomkin to sludge-dwellers like Matt Drudge. I believe much of the bad coverage and simple, avoidable mistakes by the mainstream media are due less to political agendas and more to laziness, as well as the other reasons listed for Commercially-Oriented Journalism (for more on laziness, read the Mike Freeman item at the end of this Kurtz column). Still, it’s here with journalism that the divide between the liberal and rightwing blogospheres is probably starkest. While some liberals want advocacy reporting in the straight news, as a general rule, their main concern is accuracy. For rightwing bloggers, their main concern is, does it hurt our cause? As John Dickerson put it:

One of the healthiest things about the left-wing blogosphere is its confrontational dislike of the mainstream media. There's a distinction here with the media's critics on the right. At some level, the right doesn't much like that the press exists. They don't want to fix it, they want to drive a stake through its heart. The left, on the other hand, just wishes the establishment press would do a better job. The Kos-type critique of the media is intertwined with its passion about politics. When the press gets it wrong, left-wing bloggers believe, the people are ill-informed and democracy suffers. There's respect in that anger, though you wouldn't always know it if you're the target of one of their flaming arrows. (Sometimes they apologize.)

Sadly, many mainstream journalists still fail to realize that liberals might criticize them but want them to do a good job, while the rightwing wants to hurt them, kill them and destroy the institution of a free press. Suck-ups like Halperin in 2006 don’t realize that they’ll never be accepted by the rightwing, who despise them anyway.

Honest Partisan Advocacy recognizes that one can be passionate about one's cause, but also dedicated to the truth. While some advocates can display tunnel vision, I view advocacy as dedicated to persuasion, whereas spin takes persuasion and adds a deceptive element.

I define Spin as starting with facts but providing a specific (if ludicrous) view of those facts that benefits one’s faction. To resurrect an old example, the September 2004 job growth was 96,000, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Bush administration heralded this as great news. However, some economists were disappointed by these numbers, expecting 150,000, while the Economic Policy Initiative noted this was "well below the average payroll gains of 225,000 per month" and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities declared that 96,000 was only "one-third the job growth of 300,000 per month that would have been achieved if job growth had occurred at the rate that is average for a recovery." The Kerry campaign had accurately pointed out that Bush would be the first president in 72 years to preside over a net loss in jobs. And so on. To my mind, this is classic spin, denying listeners a greater context for a statement to prevent them from accurately judging it.

Hackery to me normally speaks to a general approach or specific piece versus a single statement. Hacks typically sit down to craft a disingenuous op-ed, press release, or private e-mail to a compliant reporter. They characteristically employ a great deal of logical fallacies and deceptive rhetoric. Most liberal blogs, including this tiny one, spend a great deal of time challenging and dissecting hackery.

Bullshit we've already thoroughly defined.

I felt compelled to add Deceptive Truth-Telling/Weasel because it's a specific tactic that's often employed, telling the truth in a narrow way to give a false impression. New York Times reporter Judith Miller agreeing to identify Cheney’s then Chief of Staff Scooter Libby as a “former congressional staffer” is a great example. To preserve her relationship with Libby, Miller was willing to help him deceive the public, in this case by suggesting that the leaked information did not come from the White House or directly from the Bush administration, when it expressly did (Miller wound up not writing the article, but her account of her conduct is astounding). On his former radio show, Al Franken had a segment called "Wait, Wait, Don't Lie to Me" that classified most spin or deceptive truth-telling as a “weasel” (the other two categories were truth and lie).

Another favorite tactic of the Bush administration is the “I believe” construction. Count how many times Bush uses “I believe” in this 2/14/07 press conference (27 by my count), such as “What's different about this conflict than some others is that if we fail there, the enemy will follow us here. I firmly believe that.” The obvious follow-up question to this ludicrous statement is, why do you believe that? (Dan Froomkin weighed in on this speech here.) Technically, it may be true that Bush believes this or many other delusional things, but it is a dodge or buffer.

Actually, for this type of statement, we should probably add another category — the Delusional Belief. For instance, before the November 2006 midterm elections, both Cheney and Bush claimed we were winning in Iraq. After the Democrats won both houses of Congress, and several top generals publicly disagreed with Bush’s rosy assessment, Bush backpedaled about “winning” in a Washington Post interview. Shortly thereafter, he was quizzed about his shift on PBS’ NewsHour:

JOURNALIST: Mr. President, less than two months ago, at the end of one of the bloodiest months in the war, you said, "Absolutely we're winning." Yesterday, you said, "We're not winning. We're not losing." Why did you drop your confident assertion about winning?

GEORGE W. BUSH: My comments -- the first comment was done in this spirit. I believe that we're going to win. I believe that -- and, by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you've got to know. We're going to succeed.

Bush realized he screwed up. As awkward a speaker as he can be, he and most others in his administration are very careful about using some sort of “I believe” construction (“I firmly believe” is very popular, because we all know the strength with which a belief is held determines its validity and soundness). The chance of a Bush official using "I believe" is directly proportional to the ludicrousness of the assertion. Its use generally defuses challenges somewhat — but only because reporters either are denied a follow-up or don’t ask, “why do you believe that? What support do you have for that belief?” (National security is another favorite Bush administration excuses for ducking explanations.)

I consider Bush’s “absolutely we’re winning” statement both bullshit and a delusional belief. It was bullshit because even Bush probably knew by then that things were not going well in Iraq, but he thought his confident assessment would help the Republicans in the midterm elections (perhaps he still didn’t know). It was a delusional belief because Bush thought his confident assessment would help the Republicans in the midterm elections.

Propaganda and Lie are pretty obvious. The ABC docudrama Path to 9/11 qualifies as propaganda in my mind versus a mere hack job because it consisted of a deliberate, elaborate fabrication intended to mislead the public for political reasons. Then there’s this screenshot, very popular in the liberal blogosphere:

Slant or spin is one thing. But when Fox News is telling its viewers that Scooter Libby was found “not guilty,” they're simply not telling them the truth. This particular instance might be better called Deceptive Truth-Telling (Libby was found "not guilty" on one out of five counts) which is a favorite hack/propagandist tactic. However, for Fox News, this move is part of an overall management-directed approach, not an innocent slip-up or isolated mistake, as this collection of similar screenshots from Fox News shows. (Several leaked internal memos and Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed paint a similarly ugly picture.)

Some statements defy specific characterization, but the general range where they fall is pretty clear. For instance, with the news that the British would be withdrawing their troops from Iraq, The Boston Globe reported:

The Bush administration hastened to present the British decision as an indication that the US-led military operation was succeeding. Vice President Dick Cheney called the planned reduction "an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," and White House press secretary Tony Snow said the US-led coalition "remains intact" despite a roster that has fallen from 44 countries in 2003 to 25 now.

Tony Snow's statement could be called spin, a hack job or even a lie given the facts, or more specifically, an ineffective spin job. Still, I have no problem just calling it bullshit because he and everyone listening to him knows what he's saying is ridiculous (and my rule of thumb is, if your instinct is to call it bullshit, it's probably bullshit). Meanwhile, Cheney's Orwellian statement is either complete bullshit or our new category, the delusional belief (or both).

Again, I would not employ these categories rigidly, and I might well revisit them, but they may be useful for characterizing the flavor of the bullshit in question (eewww). The Bullshit Matrix is also useful for pointing out the wonk-hack divide, the liberal-conservative divide toward the press, and avoids lumping in all of the press in together. A "built-in, shock-proof bullshit detector" is still more important, but the Bullshit Matrix might help interpret some of the results.

(This concludes The Chart Project for this week. See you next time!)

Further Thoughts: Some people object to the word “bullshit” or even the mildest use of profanity. While I try to minimize the use of it in blog posts, personally, I’m more offended by someone spouting bullshit than I am by someone using the word, and when someone calls bullshit on a bullshitter, they deserve applause or a medal, not a Victorian scolding from the pearl-clutcher’s brigade. The word is just too invaluable to discard.

Also, while I like a good debate, I much prefer a good discussion. My main reservation about most formal debates or the informal variety on political shows is that they encourage an adversarial relationship versus a cooperative one. The truth often becomes secondary to "winning" for the participants. However, it's been said if you don't know your opponent's arguments, you don't know your own, and working to refute someone you disagree with can be invaluable for helping to articulate one's own beliefs and positions. If all the participants are sharp and relatively honest, and the moderator is good, there will be a great exchange of ideas and consideration of important counter-arguments. Points of agreement and contention will be clarified, and the audience and participants can come away with a much richer understanding of the relevant issues.

As an earlier post, "Faulty Argument Patterns and Informal Fallacies" put it:

For my own mea culpa, I certainly do not always uphold some Socratic ideal and cannot pretend to a, ahem, consistent rhetorical purity. A blog post can be a simple link, a short essay, or a cathartic rant, and all have their place. The key, it seems to me, is knowing who one is speaking with, and the tone and level of the conversation. Casual dinner conversation tends to veer away from formal debate. In comparison, political blog threads tend to be more serious and earnest, depending on the site and the post. What seems immoral to me, if one purports to care about Truth, Justice, and the American Way — or at least, truth, honest discussion, and earnest problem-solving — is to come to a sincere debate with earnest people and not engage them in kind. Most political blog chatter features some combination of smart ass attitude with a serious point (a spectrum roughly from South Park to PBS’ NewsHour). The more “newsy” a political talk show is, the further towards the “serious” the pendulum typically swings. Crossfire increasingly became a parody of itself, while William F. Buckley’s Firing Line series, despite witnessing some truly ludicrous arguments over the years, also featured at least some sincere, intelligent people advancing substantive arguments.

It’s certainly possible to make a substantive point with some humor. I also don’t find any real moral problem with insulting a hack (or troll) for being a hack as long as one makes a substantive point as well — but let’s be honest, a great deal of dealing with a hack is calling bullshit on his or her abuses of rhetoric and misrepresentation of facts. The media is loathe to call someone a liar, and an artful liar can typically get away with it, because he or she only needs to “win the half hour” and be gone before the fact-checkers can catch up with him or her. Realistically, the honest — but witty! — debater needs a mastery of both rhetorical technique and the pertinent facts. I think it’s much harder to be a truly masterful, honest debater versus a bullshitting, spin doctor-hack, but it’s also so beautiful when someone does it right.

When dealing with a hack, one needs to come fully armed and ready to deal with bullshit and faulty argument patterns. When dealing with a true scholar or wonk, faulty argument patterns are likely to be rare, and one should avoid injecting them.

1 comment:

Amy said...

This is a fantastic exploration of bullshit! You really pick up where Frankfurt left off, and then some.

I think it's interesting that you included Stewart and Colbert in there, since I was just thinking that Colbert's "truthiness" is really just another word for "bullshit": it's not quite lying; the speaker "feels" it's true... whatever that means. But it doesn't acknowledge our common access to facts and reason.

I think both media persons and other politicians are afraid to call a pol on "lying" because so long as they accused keeps a straight face, feigns righteous indignation, and says, essentially, "prove it," the accuser will be an impossible situation. You can hardly ever prove another person's state of mind or intent, and because the burden of proof is thrust back on the accuser, it makes the accuser look worse than the accused. Kind of like when 60 minutes reported the truth about bush's ANG AWOL, but when the docs turned out to be faked, could no longer prove it. The bullshitters win every time.