Wednesday, June 14, 2006

COLUMN -- There's a greater enemy to truth than outright lies

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:36 AM |  

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

There is no appropriate euphemism or synonym. This column is about cutting the crap, so to speak. Euphemism aside, the subject is "bullsh*t."

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullsh*t, writes Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt in the aptly titled "On Bullsh*t." Also at a loss for euphemism and synonym, he contends that while we think we know it when we see it, we have no common understanding of bullsh*t, what it is or how it affects us.

Nor, would it seem, do we connect it with its consequences.

Sanding off of the truth. Senate majority leader Dean Johnson got in a bit of trouble when he misrepresented alleged conversations with several state Supreme Court justices. Cornered, he insisted that the conversations occurred, but that no justice gave him any assurance about Minnesota marriage statutes.

Johnson said he "embellished" the truth. He told reporters that "embellishment" was not the same as a "lie." A lie "is meant to deceive," but "embellishment," he said, is more a "sanding off of the truth."

Johnson's semantic gymnastics and the response mirror Frankfurt's conclusions. Bullsh*t, Frankfurt says, is a misrepresentation short of an actual lie. To avoid the consequences of the truth, a liar makes a specific false statement, replacing truth with fabrication. A person cannot tell a lie unless he knows what the truth is and what its impact is. Bullsh*t, on the other hand, is indifferent to the truth.

Never lie when you can bullsh*t your way through. Dean Johnson figured that out. Getting caught in a lie is not politically wise, so Johnson simply made up a semantic distinction. Whether it made sense or not was irrelevant. His nifty shovel work enabled a nervous Senate ethics committee to shrug off his intent as mere exaggeration or, in plain language, harmless bullsh*t. Everybody does it.

That is not to say slinging bull is morally superior to lying. It simply serves a different purpose. Lying hides the fact that the speaker is not telling the truth. Bullsh*t hides the fact that the truth is of no importance. It might contain fact, but the use of facts is meant to create an impression that is not necessarily connected with reality. The fault lies not in getting something wrong, says Frankfurt, but in not even trying to get it right.

When those in power impose policy based on notions like there is absolutely no safe level of secondhand smoke, ethanol production contributes to energy independence, and bonding bills create jobs, we should have confidence that they attach some importance to what is true and what is false. In fact, what we're getting is bullsh*t.

Political implications of bullsh*t. Consider this statement from the Central Corridor Coordinating Committee Web site:

"The Central Corridor is a critical link in regional transit plans. It would connect the region's two downtowns — the twin hearts of our community … But most important, transit improvements in the Central Corridor would meet local needs. People in the neighborhoods … would benefit from improved Central Corridor transit options."

That's bullsh*t. Not because it is necessarily false. The committee has no way of knowing whether it is speaking truth or fiction. But they aren't trying to get it right. What motivates the committee is that we should accept the grand and glorious vision of light rail running down University Avenue despite economic and social realities. That's why it's bullsh*t — reality is of no importance.

The greater enemy of truth. Frankfurt comes to a logical conclusion: Excessive indulgence in ignoring reality, making assertions only considering what it suits one to say, a person loses the habit of actually looking for the truth.

Thus, smoking ban advocates need not consider the science of secondhand smoke to impose a smoke-free St. Paul. County commissioners and legislators ignore the private economic loss created by publicly funded stadiums. U.S. Senate candidates from both parties make proposals to lower gas prices, contradicting supply and demand realities. That's bullsh*t — and we shouldn't settle for it.

Perhaps "Minnesota Nice" makes us reluctant to challenge notions that fly in the face of obvious reality. Perhaps we're more uncomfortable with the word "bullsh*t" than the practice of slinging it. Whatever the reason, get over it. Bullsh*t is much more the enemy of truth than lying is.

When handed bullsh*t, we should question it and demand unsanded truth. They may not always come up with the best answer, but policy-makers owe us the effort to try to get it right. Anything less is, well, just bullsh*t.