Guest blog: Professor Randy Harris’s TV interview on … well, please see below

Below is an account of his TV interview written by Dr. Randy Harris.

[Caveat lector: This blog entry contains what used to be called “salty” language, though the sodium level is lower than many conversations one overhears on the sidewalk.]

Atif Mir, a journalist with Rawal TV, saw my website last year and sent me an email. “Would you like to come on my show and talk about bullshit?” he asked me. Let me see, I thought: we’ve just been through a federal election, and a provincial election, and the Kardashian ‘marriage’. “There’s nothing I would like more,” I said, and we set up a televised chat over the holidays.

I am, few people know, an expert in bullshit. I come from mountain folk, farmers, and cowboys.  Some of them spin it, some don’t, but all of them can smell it a mile away; we have a chromosome for it, and a maxim to go with the chromosome. “Don’t shit a shitter,” as my Uncle Wayne puts it.  But Atif, unaccountably, hadn’t heard of my Uncle Wayne. He wanted to talk about two famous essays by Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit and, the sequel, On Truth.

Frankfurt argues that bullshit is the major contaminant of contemporary life, in both the public and the private spheres—far more poisonous than mere lies. The liar, Frankfurt says, “must design his falsehood under the guidance of … truth.” He knows the facts of the matter, is always looking over his shoulder at the truth, and can be exposed by a clear revelation of those facts. The bullshitter, on the other hand, “has much more freedom.” He feels fully unconstrained by facts, making up context, characters, lineage, credentials, anything, to situate his claims, indiscriminately mixing his untruths with truths and half-truths, as suits his game. “When an honest man speaks,” Frankfurt tells us, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensible that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the truth nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. (All quotations, here and above, from Frankfurt, OB, pp. 54-56).

I, for one, have rarely seen a better description of most of the language shipped out by the boxcar from Ottawa. So, hell yeah Atif, I’ll talk with you about Frankfurt’s essays.

Here’s the problem, though: I disagree with Frankfurt in some subtle but important ways, and subtlety, we all know, is not TV’s strong suit. And there is this other thing: I am wooden and monotonal, characteristics that aren’t even good in real life, let alone in front of the camera. But if Atif was willing to sit a wooden professor in front of the camera to talk about bullshit, I was his guy.

Rawal TV is niche TV exemplified, a modest 24/7 network based in Mississauga and targeting Canadian South Asian viewers. Atif’s show, Contemporary Issues, takes the ecumenical view that anything of interest to Canadians is, ipso facto, of interest to South-Asian Canadians, and vice versa. So he is as likely to talk about the technological implications for privacy on his show as he is to talk about the prospects and implications of a burka ban. Modest does not quite describe the budget. Bashful is closer to the truth. It was Atif, the videographer, and me, on a Sunday morning in the 905. But, really, what else did we need?

Things went very smoothly. The videographer had some trouble getting the sound levels he wanted, moved the mikes around a few times, and then we were rolling. Atif talked. I talked. A few commercial breaks, more rolling, more talking, and suddenly it was over.

Atif was urbane and gracious. He even brought up a couple of my heroes, Cicero and Augustine, and steered the conversation in fruitful ways. But in the immediate aftermath, one prominently remembers the screw ups. At one point, for instance, I tied myself in a knot over—irony of ironies!—clear language. I was trying to comment on the failure of our school system to teach the moral dimensions of language, and on its unfortunate emphasis on communicative efficiency over judgement. I certainly didn’t mean to diminish the importance of clarity or effectiveness. It is only the imbalances I think are misguided. But in the interview, I seem to be complaining that schools are teaching our kids to speak clearly and write effectively—to the extent our schools accomplish that (and some of them are quite good at it), it’s the last thing I would complain about.

I managed to point out successfully, I think (invoking Augustine!), that actions can be bullshit, too, not just words, and that one has to be careful not to live a life of bullshit, nor to emulate the bullshit lives we see on ‘reality TV’ (itself a bullshit term).

And, on balance, I flogged the main point I wanted to flog: that the high bullshit quotient in contemporary society is not so much the fault of the politicians and the marketers, Frankfurt’s chief targets, as it is of the citizens and the consumers. You and me. We get the level of bullshit we deserve. One of the most frustrating, and frightening, things about the recent elections is that there were some extraordinarily blatant acts of bullshit that the public allowed to float on past. On the Provincial level, for instance, we had Tim Hudak calling the changes to Hydro rates “taxes.” Well, he called everything the Liberals said or did a tax, because he knew it was a cheap way to stoke people’s anger. The rate changes were discounts (my bills have gone down). But journalists, people on the street, students in the classroom, were all muttering about Hydro taxes as if they were an uncontested fact. On the Federal level, we had a control over the press by the ruling Conservatives that reached tin-pot dictator levels: four questions only, by people named in advance, at each event. Yet the public was clearly unperturbed by this bullshit. Why? People have become so cynical of politicians that they expect bullshit. Worse, they pretty much regard it as all bullshit, so they aren’t bothering to sort through the feces for facts, the poop for the policies, the crap for the creativity. People—you and me—need to be far less tolerant of the bullshit we accept as inevitable, and therefore encourage. Democracy depends on it. What chance do politicians have, honest or not, in a culture where they are assumed to not care about truth or facts or good government? Hold them accountable, and they will have no choice but to be accountable.

Want to watch the interview? Here it is:


3 responses to “Guest blog: Professor Randy Harris’s TV interview on … well, please see below

  1. Wow…a real lesson here on reading the title…I didn’t and spent quite some time wondering if L.E.P. had experienced some kind of altered personality state!! Great post:)

  2. Ha, ha! Yes, it must have sounded odd. I think I’ll add an intro so that others aren’t confused. Thanks JM!

  3. The citations fell off the bottom of the blog, so I’ll put them here:

    Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Frankfurt, Harry. 2006. On Truth. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

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