“Look, she’s been proven to be a liar in so many different ways. This is just another lie,” – Donald Trump
It’s hard to believe anyone found this statement credible from a man who clearly didn’t care for whether or not his statements were true – he made them for rhetorical effect. Those who supported him showed that they didn’t care about whether what he said was true or not. So why would he make a statement like this about his opponent? Why would it have any influence to an audience who hasn’t cared about the truth of his own statements.
Four years ago, I compared how the founding fathers must have felt about this kind of statements given that they added the 5th amendment to the constitution. I based the article on a small scholarly work called “On Bullshit (PDF)”. The author later wrote about this election season discussing the prevalence of BS. He defines bullshit as statements made to shape a narrative (i.e. what you want to sound like) with utter disregard to whether they are true or not. They influence those listening, who cares if it’s not true. It’s just shy of lying since the goal is not to deceive per se, it’s simply to shape the messages effect.
Sometimes this is acceptable; a little BS makes stories better: “Just how big was that fish you almost caught”? One of my uncles is a master of retelling stories and adding a bit of color that make the story much better even though it’s not what happened. But this desire to have something better than reality spreads beyond the stories we tell and retell.
We often find the truth harsh and difficult. Few of us want to dwell on the death that awaits us all; we’d rather put it out of our mind and move on to more pleasant thoughts. This desire to distract from the truth spreads to wanting to “soft land” bad news with our customers or simply make statements that are untrue in order to motivate some action. I’ve written about the desire to make others complicit in this kind of communication and how there are times people expect us to lie to them all because the truth is not what we wish it was.
We increasingly don’t expect truthfulness from our politicians, but the reason that Trump’s statement still resonates with his audience is that we don’t want to believe that’s true of ourselves. We believe that we want to know what is true without caring whether or not that belief is true. In this way, we tell ourselves BS to shape our self narrative..
And lest anyone think this applies only to those who supported Trump, the rise of fake news sites and our willingness to pass on any “news” that resonates with our view to others without researching it, along with our own hiding from the truth, we’ve all become increasingly apathetic about the truth and hide it with our own BS.
While we won’t be able to research everything we hear, we should at least be able to step back and detect the BS we encounter both in others and in ourselves, and take steps to be careful about spreading more BS ourselves.