First, Some Pedantics
“Bullshit” is a communication or behaviour used by individuals, organisations, and governments to deceive and influence others to achieve benefit for themselves.
Bullshit exercises a malevolent and disastrous influence on personal, social and world affairs, especially in today’s world where communications and social media are instant, widespread and uncontrolled.
Bullshit consists of lies, gaslighting, propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, diversion, deceit, part-truths, false promises, and partial or biased information masquerading as news or independent truth. It is the opposite of the whole truth. But only the whole truth will set you free.
On an interpersonal level, bullshit is very widespread. Outlandish, unreasonable or improbable claims, promises or requests are made, often with an underlying persuasive or coercive element, often involving some form of psychological pressure, to encourage the recipient to buy something, do something, think something, go somewhere, or behave in a certain way.
Bullshit doesn’t have to be loud, abrasive, overtly threatening or unpleasant, although it often is. It can be subtle, and delivered with assurance, politeness, humour and an apparent concern for the recipient’s welfare. But it is by definition to the recipient’s disadvantage. Its antidotes are self-confidence, a sure grounding in one’s own self and identity, and awareness of the facts. Not everyone does or can possess these characteristics, and some people are content, because of fear, or desire for peace or a quiet life, to accede to the bullshitter’s requirements.
As for the bullshitter, he or she is not necessarily a bad person with bad motives. He may just be a forceful individual used to getting his own way, using bullshitting techniques as a way to achieve that. On the other hand he may be a drug dealer pushing a free smoke, a political opportunist seeking power, a friend or work colleague throwing his weight around, a sexual predator or a marital abuser taking advantage.
It may be slightly unfair to bracket advertisers with bullshitters, but the comparison stands up to some extent. Manufacturers, suppliers and service providers have to advertise themselves and distinguish their products from those of their rivals, otherwise no one would know about their offering and no one would buy it. Remember slogans like ‘Go to Work on an Egg’, or ‘Drinka Pinta Milka Day’?
It is when producers and suppliers go beyond this, that the bullshitting element kicks in. Sophisticated marketing techniques to gain attention and sales include the subtle, the humorous, the sexual, the blanket coverage, and the illusionary bliss of some fantasy work-free world, no bills to pay, no poverty, no cold or rainy weather and the sun shines while you enjoy your luxury product or win some great prize and gaze lovingly at some beautiful companion. Unconscious association of ideas.
Again, the antidote, unless you like being seduced with fantasies that way, is to hold on to the facts and your own good sense of what you need, want and can afford. But despite your good sense, you can be and often are seduced anyway. Advertising bullshit sometimes works. That’s why it’s done.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is an industry-run organisation that makes no pretence of defending the public interest. Many advertising practices are utterly obnoxious or dangerous (badverts.org and Conscious Advertising Network). Do we want huge billboards littering the roadscape or cityscape, or blanket coverage of TV screens, sports grounds and players with betting, car or alcohol ads, or social media peppered with intrusive, harmful and targeted ads? I would say not.
The state should fund an independent regulator with sufficient powers and resources to act in the public’s best interest.
Greenwashing, corporate washing, or regime washing, is the latest form of bullshit to be inflicted on populations, undertaken on a massive scale by Middle Eastern, fossil fuel, corporate and regime interests, to influence public opinion. The public and many organisations mostly vote with their feet and accept all the money going into football, golf, Formula 1, Olympics, World Cups, the Science Museum, the British Museum, book festivals and much more. Of course they are being influenced to overlook the bad stuff that these bullshitters are engaged in.
Vast financial resources are funding climate-change-denial and the removal of environmental protections, through lobbying, partisan think tanks, bribes, political donations, malign social media ads and posts, from Russia, the Middle East, corporates (Koch Bros., BP, Aramco, Shell etc), and many right-wing interests. All knowingly use bullshit extensively. As Hadrian Cook says in WE Bylines, ‘we are confused by the tissue of lies and obfuscation that conspiracy theorists and climate change deniers trot out’. Bullshit on steroids.
Politics is about power. Who wants it, how they get it, what they do with it, and how they keep it. Bullshit in politics is really, really dangerous and disempowering, as well as deeply anti-democratic, and betrays the public who are entitled to expect their politicians, government and its agencies to behave legally, sensibly, fairly and honestly. But bullshit is now widespread, and operates in conjunction with political and financial corruption. It is especially prevalent in autocratic regimes, though increasingly in so-called democratic regimes too, where many politicians regularly and extensively use it.
Engaging the emotions with fake news and absurd culture wars, is what bullshitters do, though they do also engage the intellect with misinformation and deceptive argument, while at the same time accusing others of manufacturing fake news. Classic projection.
Propaganda kills (see Jen Senko, in ‘How to Detox from Fox’, Byline Supplement)
“Propaganda is tremendously powerful. Propaganda creates terrorism. Propaganda kills. Propaganda helped cause the holocaust which resulted in over 11 million people deemed ‘the other’ being murdered.
“Propaganda through the radio drove the killing of over 800,000 Tutsis by their neighbours and family in 1994. The constant drumbeat over the last 40 years of hate propaganda has come to its intended conclusion; disruption in the order of things, chaos and unbridled hatred of ‘the other’ – whoever ‘the other’ is at the time.
“Trying to break through the capitalist fortress protecting billionaire owned media networks is a hero’s task”.
Some Bullshit Examples from Current Politics (so many to choose from):
Ex-president Donald Trump, with a powerful and well-resourced army of supporters (the Republican Party, MAGA voters, some US Corporates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia – and President Putin from Russia), repeats, ad nauseam, a view promulgated and amplified by many right-wing news agencies, that the 2020 presidential election was actually stolen from him (despite all evidence to the contrary). Also, that President Biden is part of the Biden crime family, and that Hunter Biden’s laptop proves it (actually the laptop may be a Russian intelligence ‘plant’). See also the Thom Hartmann Report, August 14 2023.
Trump’s strategy adviser, Steve Bannon, advised the then President to ‘flood the zone with shit’. Trump and his allies are now aiming to turn the USA into a strongman, autocratic, anti-democratic, fascist state, with bullshit and the chaos it causes (and the USA Constitution) as their main weapon.
Ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leader of the Vote Leave referendum campaign in 2016, repeatedly lauded the extensive benefits of Brexit. In the event, none of his claims materialised, and they were revealed as the bullshit that they always were. (see Review of the Byline TV documentary – Betrayed: The Big Brexit Lie, Yorkshire Bylines)
Yet many of the 52% of the Referendum voting public accepted them. The bullshit worked. (Brexit Without the Bullshit by Gavin Esler).
President of Russia Vladimir Putin, with his 100% control of the information and media space, uses it to tell Russian citizens that the invasion of Ukraine is justified by all the Nazis, transpeople and homosexuals there, that NATO is threatening Russia, and the military must be mobilized to protect Mother Russia. All bullshit.
Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China since 2013, describes the situation in Xinjiang Province as peaceful and prosperous. Total bullshit. Amnesty International calls China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghurs a crime against humanity and possibly genocide.
The Taliban use their adherence to an extreme, archaic, Islamic religious-fundamentalist sect as bullshit cover to maintain their inhumane, harsh, dictatorial hegemony.
Bullshit Reigns Supreme
Bullshit politics is used by the minority and the powerful to obtain, retain, extend and exploit their power and money at the expense of the majority. Bullshitting advertisers and greenwashers do likewise to extend their corporate power. There are many malign actors who use bullshit extensively with little or no control, resistance or limit. None of it is illegal. Even Trump’s Big Lie is claimed to be legal under the USA Constitution’s Free Speech rules.
Autocratic and dictatorial regimes, the majority around the world, give ordinary people little choice but to hear and accept the bullshit and be influenced and in many cases be totally controlled by it. In democratic countries, people have some choice, but they are still bombarded and overloaded with plenty of bullshit from politicians, corporations, media, government and others, and some of it sticks to some people.
Bullshit is the first and only resort of the wannabe powerful, whose main objective is to have and exploit that power for their own benefit. The principal component of populism is bullshit. How the current Tory government are preparing their bullshit for the next general election is explained by Mark Thomas.
As Ian Dunt tells us in How Westminster Works….and Why It Doesn’t, the stronger the democracy, the better are people able to understand, withstand, reject, avoid or close down the bullshit onslaught.
The views expressed here are those of the author.
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