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Bullshit: Truth under assault

The blurring of true and false amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

Image by Andrew Caballero-Rerynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Human beings are storytelling animals. We attempt to make sense of the world around us, and our place within it, by subconsciously constructing narratives that are cogent with our own beliefs and biases. However, this process, wherein we form our own version of ‘the truth’ from the assortment of discourse that surrounds us, often ends up revealing more about the person that constructed the story, than the event or issue that they intended to detail. But in times of global turmoil and crisis, wherein over 7.7 billion people are attempting to narrativise the present in simultaneity, there is a singular narrative that inevitably prevails; bullshit.

In 1986, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an academic paper titled ‘On Bullshit,’ wherein he outlined the quiddity of a term that is so ubiquitous in contemporary discourse that we tend to ignore its substance. His theory, centred around a simple dichotomy, separated liars from bullshitters by noting that “the liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; [whilst] the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether their listener is persuaded”. Thus, the most definitive attribute of bullshit, Frankfurt decides, is a complete disregard for the truth.

In view of this, it would not be a stretch to propose that Frankfurt’s theory seems almost proleptically respondent to our current political climate. One need only look as far as the White House to see a political model hinged on the capital of bullshit, and to sense that authority is now, more than ever, built on the foundations of charisma and blind persuasion. But what is most deeply disturbing (not to mention profoundly dangerous) is that in the wake of the global spread of COVID-19, bullshit narratives appear to hold as much currency as a 12-pack of toilet rolls.

In his address to the United States concerning COVID-19, and much of his recent Twitter content, President Donald Trump blatantly ignored the wills of the World Health Organisation, denoting the pandemic as the ‘Chinese Virus’. This linguistic choice has served as a justification for countless narratives of hate, centred around xenophobic racial profiling that inextricably attaches the lethal virus to its place of origin, and Asian identity more broadly. However, when faced with facts concerning a spike in racially-targeted violence following his use of the alternative title, Trump claimed that his continued use of the term was ‘not racist, not at all, [the virus] comes from China, that’s why.’

Mere days later, our own Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, responded to the current Australian supermarket crisis by taking on the strategy of a primary-school teacher with a nationalist bent; convincing the population that sharing is caring by painting the act of hoarding as ‘ridiculous’, and perhaps more importantly, ‘un-Australian.’

But perhaps the most insidious bullshit that has emerged from the Corona crisis so far, is that which penetrated the Australian airwaves in the early hours of the 16th of March. From a self-isolated studio, 78 year-old talk-back radio host Alan Jones stated that “We now seem to be facing the health version of global warming. Exaggeration in almost everything. Certainly in description, and certainly in behaviour.” It is timely to note that the famed climate change denialist, along with almost half of his listeners, are in the age category most at risk of death from COVID-19.

These three men are no strangers to bullshit. Trump has produced more alternative than real facts since entering the White House in 2017, Morrison is still coming to terms with the reality of travel bans preventing his ability to flee this crisis and go to Hawaii, and Jones, the so-called ‘controversial conservative,’ has been so overtly racist, sexist and ignorant on radio that the only thing that is consistently conservative in his arguments is the supply of facts to substantiate them. As such, we have grown used to taking many of their comments with a grain of salt, because whilst genuinely meaningless discourse may be frustrating, it usually isn’t taken seriously for all that long. Why then, in the midst of one of the most significant global health crises in recent history, does this attitude change?

Now is a period defined by two significant forces; great uncertainty and media noise. Both are parasitic organisms that not only feed off each other, but are sustained by a sense of anxiety and hysteria. This is where bullshit comes in. Bullshit is the perfect click and share material. It is the content that gets billions of hits and millions of retweets because we share it in the hope that others will confirm our fury. At a time when people are literally divided, we find unity in our common opinions, and those common opinions are usually rooted in revulsion.

We have been told time and time again to seek the advice and opinions of medical professionals, but the reality is that our updates on COVID-19 are being fed to us second-hand through the mouths of politicians, radio jockeys, journalists, television presenters and celebrities on social media. Although we would like to assume that people with a platform at this time are well informed, we are still storytelling animals, and in view of this, we embellish, and sometimes even avoid the truth, to attract clicks, likes and shares.

Thus, although we have been quick to assign the title of the ‘post-truth age’ to this present era of communicative abundance, what is in jeopardy at this time is not the existence of truth, but trust.

Frankfurt did not propose the theory of bullshit merely because of a vocational bent to provide a philosophical essence to that which is unimportant. The theory of bullshit is forged on the foundations of the need to question ideas that are posed to us, and what better time is there to ask questions than now?