As we battle on through the TV election debates, some are already rolling their eyes. Many have stopped following the news altogether for fear of seeing more coverage. Why do we loathe the election so deeply? The answer, I believe, can be captured in one word: bullshit.
The number one feature that most citizens hate about election campaigns is the vast quantities of bullshit they generate. The politician spin machine goes into over-drive and starts to mass produce vast quantities of linguistic detritus.
Terms like “hard working taxpayers”, “long-term economic plan” and the “squeezed middle” are carefully constructed but tend to show only the vaguest connection to reality.
Bullshit, it has been argued, is essentially a lack of concern with the truth – an indifference to how things really are. A long-term economic plan might sound desirable, for example, but it’s not exactly clear how such a plan would fare in an an unpredictable global economy.
So how do we know we are faced with bullshit? Recently I have been reading the small, but rapidly growing literature on the topic for a book which I am writing on bullshit in organisations. It provides some handy tips for anyone watching the leadership debates in the run up to this election. Here are some questions you can ask if you think you might be being sold bullshit.
What is the evidence?
If a voter wants to work out whether they are dealing with bullshit, they can start by asking what the evidence is to back up a claim. Bullshitters trade in empty claims. Their statements rely on abstract terms with no clear connection to facts. Look out for mentions of values, beliefs or ambitions. These words could mean almost anything and they’re difficult to pin down.
Most politicians are well prepared though. They’ll have some anecdote or maybe even a statistic ready to defend their point. If this happens, the voter needs to start asking exactly how trustworthy their evidence is. Is it rigorous study based on a large data-set? Was it undertaken by independent researchers? Or was it produced by a biased think tank and based on answers from a small number of people?
Where is the logic?
Clearly there are some statements – such as future plans – that can’t be backed up by facts alone. In these cases, we have to look at the logic of the argument. Often bullshit involves a lack of clear logic between connecting parts of a statement. There might be some appealing buzzwords, but we don’t get a sense of how all these buzzwords fit together.
We can ask some elementary questions to help us decide. Is there a clear and sensible connection between the various parts of a statement? Do the detailed practical recommendations logically follow from the broader claims? Does the statement align with the broader principles of a politician or a party? If, for example, a politician starts talking about funding public services but at the same time their party is committed to large scale tax cuts, you might start detecting bullshit.
One of the most troubling features of bullshit is the maligned intention lurking behind it. Instead of trying one’s best to describe the truth of a situation, a bullshitter wants to impress and convince.
To identify the interests behind a statement, the voter needs to ask the basic question made famous by Cicero: cui bono? – who benefits? If we were to accept the argument, who would be better off and who would be worse off? We might also ask what kind of impression the person is trying to create with an argument.
What kind of image are they presenting and why? We might also ask what an argument diverts our attention from. For instance, focusing on additional funding for one type of service might divert our attention from much larger cuts to other services.
What does it actually mean?
A statement or word can be called bullshit if it is impossible to define. Politicians love such terms became they don’t have to pin them down. They can also be turned to almost any purpose. Citizens, on the other-hand loathe them, precisely because they are confusing and ambiguous.
Clarifying what a statement means involves asking whether we can put it into our own words without changing its meaning or checking if the same word means the same thing to someone else. When you hear a politician talking about “British values” in the debates, ask the person next to you what that means. If you come up with a different answer, you may be on the receiving end of some bullshit.
Some claims fit all four bullshit criteria. They lack evidence and logic, are driven by maligned intentions and are difficult to clarify. The technical term for such claims is “pure bullshit”. This particularly refined form of bullshit is often fairly easy to spot and easily dismissed.
It is the bullshit that only fits into one or two criteria that is hardest to process. It might be backed up by some evidence but little logic. It might be uttered with the best intentions but be impossible to define. This is the type that you are most likely to encounter when watching a political debate. Good luck spotting it.