Is it lying or bullshit?
The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion once said that the person who is most aware of the truth is the liar. Why? The liar must think constantly about the truth since he is trying to say its opposite. To lie effectively, he must remain constantly aware of the truth he lies about.
While lying is a clear problem today in political processes around the world, another problem is actually more pernicious and dangerous: bullshit. The philosopher Frankfurt several years ago wrote an important book, On Bullshit. In his book, he pointed out the difference between lies and bullshit. The liar is false, but the bullshitter is a phony. Whereas the liar says the opposite of the truth and remains aware of it, for the bullshitter, the truth is irrelevant. He does not say the opposite of a given truth; he doesn’t care what the truth is. In this sense, bullshit, the disregard of the truth and treating it and reality as irrelevant, is far more dangerous to a society and democracy than lies.
In therapy, if the patient consciously lies, the therapist must point this out and address the feelings and facts the patient tries to ward off through conscious lying. If this lying does not remit, the therapist has to terminate the therapy since it requires a dedication by both therapist and patient to face the truth.
Notice here that I am referring to conscious lying. All defenses are unconscious lies we tell ourselves to avoid the pain in our lives. But we don’t realize we are lying to ourselves. We don’t see the lies we tell ourselves. And that is where a therapist can help us become conscious of the lies we don’t see.
What about conscious lying in society? Researchers found last year that a significant percentage of items on both right wing and left wing sites in the U.S. were lies. Lying has become so frequent in our political discourse that the need for fact checkers has arisen. In response to this new institution, a new lie has appeared: “fact checkers are liars too.” Then we got a new lie on top of that: “facts don’t exist.” Then a further lie: “we are in a post-truth era.” Falsehoods are relabeled as “alternative facts.”
Let us not forget that claims such as “facts don’t exist” or “we are in a post-truth era” are self-contradictions. The claim that we are in a “post-truth” era is itself a truth claim. All statements are statements about the nature of reality. Thus, the attempt to deny that there is a truth is not just a philosophical claim; it is a political act. “If there is no truth, your opinions are not true, and, thus, they can be thrown away and dismissed. I no longer need to engage in dialogue with you.” But, to be clear, the claims that “facts don’t exist” or “we are in a post-truth era” are themselves lies.
When lying is constant, democracy is no longer possible. If we can no longer agree on the facts, we have no basis for the exchange of ideas that political discourse is based upon. When our opinions no longer refer to a shared body of truth, we can no longer make decisions based upon shared facts. As a result, democracies can devolve into fascism, the attempt to use violence to impose a decision since a democratic process can no longer reach one.
Why does the bullshitter treat the truth as irrelevant? If he can convince people that all other views are lies or “fake news,” he becomes the arbiter of the truth. He is not concerned with the truth, per se, he is concerned with having control over what is considered the truth. In other words, this political dictatorship over the truth is an act of violence against the truth as reality.
Ordinarily, truth and reality are considered something other than our opinions and thoughts. Our thoughts attempt to grasp reality, but reality will always be more complex than our ideas. Just as the photo of your house is not the house; our thought is never the same as the reality toward which it points.
Thus, we are always comparing our thoughts with reality so that we can refine our thinking. But this requires facing the frustration and hard work that results when we find the ways our thoughts are not matching reality. Then we have to change the way we think and perceive. And to grow in the subtlety of our thinking, our relationship to reality is essential.
In contrast, the bullshitter regards reality as irrelevant. For him, his thoughts do not point to reality because they are a substitute for it. Dialogue with others is not necessary since he already knows what he “thinks.” Reading, research, and expertise are not necessary because his thoughts are a substitute for a relationship to reality. For him, “alternative facts” replace real facts.
Now he faces the question of how to convince others that his internal reality can be a substitute for external reality. Using the knowledge gleaned from the psychological literature, the bullshitter knows that if lies and bullshit are repeated enough, that’s what we will remember. Having heard it enough, we will recall it first, and then regard it as the truth rather than a lie we swallowed multiple times.
By taking the role of the one who calls others “fake news” purveyors, the bullshitter becomes the “truth teller” who assassinates the truth. Killing off opponents as supposed “liars,” he intimidates others into silence. Over time, establishing a political dictatorship over the truth, his psychological violence on the truth paves the way for the political violence of fascism.
This pattern has played out many times in many cultures across the world. Yet no matter how many times bullshitters have claimed the truth was irrelevant, the truth keeps showing up. It is the truth they fear.
Is it lying or bullshit?