BS, Redux

A long-time correspondent points me to this graduation speech recently published in The Atlantic: “Life Lessons in Fighting the Culture of Bullshit: What politics taught me that graduates need to know.”  The piece is by Jon Lovett, who has written speeches for Barack Obama after having worked against him on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Lovett’s take on the topic is conventional:

“One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media’s imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything. And it wends its way into our private lives as well, changing even how we interact with one another: the way casual acquaintances will say ‘I love you’; the way we describe whatever thing as ‘the best thing ever’; the way we are blurring the lines between friends and strangers. And we know that. There have been books written about the proliferation of malarkey, empty talk, baloney, claptrap, hot air, balderdash, bunk. One book was aptly named ‘Your Call is Important to Us.'”

My correspondent suggests, “I think graduation is too late to introduce college students to the academic literature on bullshit. It should be in the form of a workshop or course in 1st or second year college.” I agree. BS should be forcefully addressed sometime in the first year. To me BS is a form of Rhetoric, which is a fundamental lattice undergirding all academic disciplines; it is the start of knowledge and of discourse and debate.

My definition of BS: It is the use of a message to hide one’s true intentions. It can be a lie, it can be the truth (with some key points left unsaid), or it can be something else altogether, like “changing the subject.” Its ethical possibilities are polyvalent; after all, we cannot live without hiding our wishes and our natures sometimes.

At any rate Rhetoric should indeed be a required first-year course at university. Students need to know how to spot and how to make arguments.

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