First, there was the Age of Faith – soaring cathedrals, a belief in a supreme deity, courageous saints containing the spread of evil. Then there was the Age of Reason – the era of the Enlightenment, the guidance of science and a belief that the mind could unravel all the mysteries of the universe.
Today, however, according to a number of learned books and a recent New Yorker article, we live in the Age of Bullshit. “We live in an era of unprecedented bullshit production… Presidents, priests, politicians, laywers, reporters, corporate executives and countless others have taken to saying not what they actually believe, but what they want others to believe – not what is, but what works.” Your Call is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit, by Laura Penny (Crown Publishers, NY)
Bullshit, we learn, is different from lying. A liar knows what he is saying to be false. A bullshitter, on the other hand, simply doesn’t care whether what he is saying is true or not – it’s what he can get away with.
According to Harry Frankfurt in On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005), the quintessential example of bullshit occurred when Ludwig Wittgenstein visited a friend in hospital and asked her how she felt. She said she felt like a run-over dog. Wittgenstein was disgusted. “You don’t know a dog that has been run over feels like.” Wittgenstein’s friend wasn’t lying. She was bullshitting. According to Frankfurt, bullshitting has become “one of the most salient features of our culture.”
Chronic truth decay
The proliferation of bullshit is one of the principal reasons I put so much emphasis in my books and workshops on telling the truth, the truth as best you can tell it, the authentic truth. Becoming identified as a bullshitter will devastatingly reduce your chances of being an effective leader of change.
Why is there so much bullshit today? The books have difficulty in putting their finger on any single reason. Frankfurt suggests diplomatically and optimistically that since there is so much more communication generally, perhaps the proportion that is bullshit hasn’t increased. Penny says that “our era is unique by virtue of its sheer scale, its massive budget, its seemingly unlimited capability to send bullshit hurtling rapidly over the globe.”
Politicians and advertisers are cited as champions of bullshit, addictively "painting the lawn green." Their slogans wash over us: "You deserve a break today." "I'd like to teach the world to sing." "Mission accomplished." "We are fighting a war on poverty." The US emerges as the champion nation of bullshitting because ours is “much more ubiquitous, well-funded, and outrageous” than any other nation’s.
Frankfurt suggests that bullshitting is also encouraged by the perceived responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything. This leads inevitably to “the lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality.”
Post-modernist attacks on truth have also, it is said, had a hand in encouraging bullshit. If we cannot ever really know for sure what is true, then at least we can be sincere. As Blackburn however points out, knowledge about ourselves is “elusively insubstantial.” Hence a claim to be speaking the truth about ourselves is in great danger of being itself a prize example of bullshit.
For instance, distinguished literary critics, including the super-subtle Lionel Trilling in his otherwise brilliant book, Sincerity and Authenticity, have cited with approval Polonius’s advice to his son in Shakespeare's Hamlet: “This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” This advice is, to be sure, persuasively phrased, but we should get a hint about its veracity from the fact that Shakespeare puts the words in the mouth of a doddering old fool. In fact, when you think about it for more than a second, you realize that it cannot possibly be true. So whether or not Polonius believes his advice, he is bullshitting!
How to avoid bullshitting
Is there a way out? Can we be sincere and tell the truth about ourselves? Is it possible to tell the truth? What I advise in my workshops, and what I say in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, is to proceed as though it is possible to think disinterestedly and to do one's best to present one's conclusions without significant distortion.
These assumptions may be hard to justify to a philosopher, but they contribute to a form of communication that is immensely useful. The assumptions constitute in effect a set of enabling conventions. Whether or not you believe in the enabling conventions – for example that truth can be known – telling a story in this way requires no life-long philosophical commitment to the belief, only a willingness to adopt this position for a limited time and purpose.
Similarly, playing the game of tennis doesn’t necessitate adopting the position that our lifelong aim is to defeat our opponent. But if we want to play a good game of tennis on a particular day, it does require that we adopt the conventions of tennis and try to defeat our opponent on that particular day. We cannot play an excellent game of tennis if we are all the time questioning the conventions of the game, or commenting on the evolution of the game, or wondering whether we should be trying to defeat our opponent. After the game is over, we may sit back and have philosophical discussions about whether the conventions of tennis make sense, or whether other conventions would be preferable, or whether we really enjoy trying to defeat our best friend at tennis, but for the duration of the game, these questions have to be set aside in order to play an excellent game of tennis. Then the game can proceed.
So it is with storytelling. The performance of storytelling requires the storyteller to accept the conventions of storytelling at least for the duration of the performance. In performance, the storyteller is certain, fearless and relentless in presenting things “as they really are.” While the role can be useful and even thrilling, it can hardly be permanent. For better or worse, human beings cannot remain in a permanent state of certainty, fearlessness and relentlessness. There is no reliable evidence to support the storyteller’s claim to the disinterested expression of truth. The insouciance required to ignore what everyone knows and to carry the listeners along cannot be maintained for very long, and master storytellers know the limits. The storytelling performance is thus a sprint, not a marathon.
This is not to say that the leader as storyteller cannot acknowledge human inadequacies. We know that much of the time we are unreliable, inconsistent or uncertain. We are victims of our ambitions. We may deceive ourselves for reasons of sentimentality or friendship or vanity or self-interest. We remain a morass of unsatisfied appetites. These inadequacies can however be seen as a regrettable layer of imperfection over fundamental soundness. We never despair. We’re not impotent, merely weak. We can grow stronger. We can not only aspire to what is true and worthwhile: we can even succeed in our dreams. We can recognize a new experience or new possibilities through a story. By communicating that experience or those possibilities, we can ratchet up our own, and our audience’s, understanding.
Above all, one must make a determined effort to tell the authentic truth, even though everyone around is bullshitting. This isn't easy. In fact it’s terrifying to think how many things can go wrong in an effort to present something clearly and accurately. Perhaps our memory is playing tricks on us. Maybe we have difficulty expressing what we see. Our insights may lack edge. We may have been misled. Even if we have none of these fears, the situation is hardly any better, since the listeners may have the same fears about us. How can we deal with doubts that we cannot even in principle know?
Presenting the truth as we see it is a capability that is available to everyone. Such competence is no more problematic than being able to see what we see with our own eyes. The storyteller does not have to be omniscient. It is the everyday form of competence of knowing what we need to know for this particular talk.
So why not join us in committing to authentic storytelling, and help fight bullshit?
Read more about The Leader's Guide to Storytelling.