This post contains language you might not want your boss to read over your shoulder. It’s a comparative taxonomy of two subspecies of four-letter excrement. You have been warned.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s a lot of shit flying around. Humans are better at producing it than most mammals, because we don’t just produce it in the form of sewage–we also use shit as a social lubricant. Particularly bullshit.
The seminal study of bullshit is Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, and it argues that bullshit is primarily about pretense. The information in any particular steaming pile of bullshit may be true or false (and is usually a mixture of the two), but its promulgation is designed to impress and sway in a way that bypasses the critical faculties.
“Bullshit is everywhere. Bullshit is rampant!” –George Carlin
Top-down media, or one-to-many media, such as radio, television, theater, books, and (to a lesser extent) blogs are ideal vectors for bullshit. And bullshit has to be shoveled out from time to time in order to keep the relational and social wheels turning. Bullshit in culture is the same as bullshit on a prairie: one amount fertilizes the system. Another (higher) amount kills it. No bullshit at all makes everything dull, boring, and barren.
So bullshit is something we understand. We deal with it everyday. Racism is bullshit–but so is the news. Different levels of toxicity, but same stuff. We deal with it, sometimes not well, but we deal with it. And the more aware of it we are, the better we deal with it.
But there’s another kind of shit we haven’t quite come to grips with (and by “we” I also mean “me.” I’m not using “we” as a bullshit posturing move). And it’s a kind of shit whose time in the sun has finally arrived.
Where bullshit must be plausible to be effective, almost always contains a little truth (to make the rest of it slide down easier), and is essentially a con trick or a fiction, horse shit is different. Horse shit is complete nonsense.
Here’s some examples of horse shit:
- Only people with (or without) a big corporate contract are real artists
- People who use words like [insert pet peeve word here] are [sexist/racist/homophobic/etc]
- [Insert despised political party/interest group here] want to enslave everyone and wreck the world, and are thus evil
Each of these statements is complete horse shit. None of them even make sense on the face of them. Every one of you reading this (and the asshole writing this) has probably made one or another versions of one of these statements at some ill-advised moment, in a fit of pique, or in jest between friends.
The “between friends” part is the key to the rise of horse shit. The rules of conversation in your in-group are different than the rules of engagement cross-culture. This used to be well-understood, there’s even a sociological term for it: “code switching.” One set of words has different connotations in one context than another, and the impact of the words changes accordingly.
That latitude between friends lets horse shit run rampant, because the words don’t have to make sense between friends. The sentiments don’t even have to make sense between friends. What matters between friends is the shared joke.
A good non-polarizing example: Nazi jokes. Everyone can make Nazi jokes, because Nazis are the universal outgroup. It doesn’t matter, for humor purposes, that all Nazis weren’t evil. That many were good. That some of them were less anti-Semitic than FDR. That not all of them were genocidal fuckheads.
The entire conceit of Nazi jokes are that all Nazis were as bad as Hitler, and Hitler was the worst guy in history. But this conceit is horse shit, as anyone who has studied history beyond the 20th century (or even beyond 20th century Europe) can spot in a hot second. When you’re telling a joke, that doesn’t matter, because it’s the shared experience of laughter that matters.
The trouble comes when horse shit stops being a joke. When you take it seriously. When your in-group homilies start to become out-group policy–or when you start attacking other people because of their in-group language rules, and demand they operate by yours instead.
Before the Internet, this didn’t really matter much. The only way a left winger and a right winger were going to run into each other is if one sought out and read the other–in which case the rule was Caveat Emptor! Just like an anthropologist visiting a foreign land, it’s up to the visitor to adapt to the foreign culture. It’s a social contract called “etiquette.”
But the Internet has made the entire world into everyone’s living room, and horse shit is leaking out all over the place. It’s fuelling moral panics, character assassinations, holy wars, and (sometimes) legislation. It’s costing people their jobs. It’s not funny anymore. It’s bullshit.
What we need is a trick for spotting horse shit, and that’s gonna require a little bit of effort. In the spirit of one who enjoys a good tussle, and likes experiencing different worldviews, and considers inter-subculture dialogue to be a good thing that benefits everyone, I offer a few ideas:
- If you’re on someone else’s blog, be sure you understand their language before you flame them. You might actually already agree, but not realize it. If you actually disagree, you’ll be able to communicate your thoughts clearly.
- If something can be taken as a joke, assume it is a joke–even if it’s a bad one.
- Stop assuming that the Internet is a safe place, or can ever contain any safe places. It’s a jungle out here, and it’s the last wild space we’ve got. Let’s protect it.
- When someone comments on your blog and sounds like they’re completely evil or stupid, assume instead that there’s a fundamental miscommunication. Evil people are rare. Stupid people are less rare. Smart people with blind spots and prejudices are as common as electrons
- Whatever you do, do not under any circumstances assume you share a worldview with someone you don’t know well. When we’re all speaking the same surface language (English, German, whatever) it’s easy to assume we understand each other. But we don’t.
- Try not to promulgate horse shit. If you want to ride a hobby horse, invite your “enemies” into the discussion.
Note: I could be *completely wrong* about any or all of these items. These are suggestions, ideas, not dictates. To suggest that I have a command of this subject would be horse shit packaged as bullshit.
Horse shit is fine in the paddock. But when it gets all over the pavement it’s just a hazard to navigation. Horse shit is completely nonsensical. It’s what scientists call “not even wrong.” All its propositional value rests on implication and code speak. When you see horse shit, call it out! Better yet, don’t promulgate horse shit.
We’ve had centuries to learn how to deal with bullshit, and we had an intensive lesson in the 20th century. Now we’ve got a mass media that’s purpose built for the creation and dissemination of horse shit. It’s up to us to learn how to deal with it, too.
Because, really, don’t you get just a little bit tired of this shit? Sometimes?