"We live in a knowledge society..." suggest pundits and headlines of the day. Or, compare with the shouting and explanations of the "Information Age" we seem to be immersed in.
Yet, like most things, 'knowledge' and 'information' with all their potential benefits (and many varying definitions), also have flip sides; shadow sides one might suggest. Think of the recent great hoopla over 'fake news' and 'alternative facts'... These are often otherwise referred to as Bullshit.
Bullshit, I suggest, is often ignorance pretending to be knowledge. Or worse, ignorance purposely parading as knowledge - with an intention to mislead... to shroud, to bullshit.
In recent times, Bullshit has become a rather accepted term in some public circles. A search of academic, peer-reviewed journals brings up multiple results that include "bullshit" in the title, or within the content of articles. Many of these build upon Princeton University moral philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt's essay/book "On Bullshit" published in 2005 (but originally written in the mid-1980s). Frankfurt looked to develop a definition of Bullshit, especially in relation to Communication suggesting in his opening chapter that he intended to develop "a theoretical understanding of bullshit".
As one review of his essay from the NY Times suggests: "What is bullshit, after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth." Frankfurt pointed out that Bullshit can, in many cases, be more destructive than outright lies.
In further philosophical explorations of Bullshit, Oxford philosopher G.A. Cohen suggests Frankfurt missed a vital component of bullshit; that within academia. He fronts the Oxford English Dictionary definition:
bullshit n. & v. coarse sl.—n. 1. nonsense, rubbish. 2. trivial or insincere talk or writing. —v. intr. (-shitted,-shitting) talk nonsense; bluff. bullshitter n.
Cohen quite hilariously discusses some differences between these two OED definitions, suggesting that Frankfurt "focused on just one flower in the lush garden of bullshit" - that of definition 2. from above.
In definition 2. of the noun “bullshit,” bullshit is constituted as such through being the product of discourse governed by a certain state of mind. In this activity-centered definition of bullshit, the bull, conceptually speaking, wears the trousers: bullshit is bullshit because it was produced by a bullshitter, or, at any rate, by someone who was bullshitting at the time.
Bullshit is, by nature, the product of bullshitting, and bullshitting, by nature, produces bullshit, and that biconditional, so understood that “bullshitting” enjoys semantic primacy, is true of Frankfurt’s view of the matter.
However, Cohen feels that:
Definition 1., by contrast, defines “bullshit” without reference to the bullshit producer’s state of mind. The defect of this bullshit does not derive from its provenance: almost any state of mind can emit nonsense or rubbish, with any old mix of sincerity and its lack. Here the shit wears the trousers, and if there are indeed “bullshitters,” and “bullshittings,” that correspond to the bullshit of definition 1., then they are defined by reference to bullshit.
But it may be the case, as I meant to imply by that “if,” that the words “bullshitting” and “bullshitter” don’t have a stable place on this side of the [explanation] divide. However that may be, definition 1. supplies an output-centered definition of the noun: the character of the process that produces bullshit is immaterial here.
Now bullshit wearing trousers in a garden of bullshit, can make for some chuckles.
Rather than simply say "I don't know" or "we don't know" - organizations and their actors will frequently have countless meetings to pretend that they do know, or might know, or create some sort of document that purports to know... as long as they have more meetings, or more 'terms of reference', or more steering committees, then the march of ignorance can be held at bay (so some believe).
As Andre Spicer, a Professor of Organizational Studies at London University, suggests in a 2013 article in M@n@gement journal "Shooting the shit: The role of bullshit in organisations":
"The production of talk and text – or ‘discourse’ - is central to organisational life. Most of us are now ‘paper pushers’ who spend our days creating, circulating and consuming discourses. One study [in 1995] estimated that office workers whose job is to try to persuade others make up 25% of the US economy. This estimate was recently [in 2013] increased to a whopping 30%... So what exactly do all these discourse jockeys spend their time doing?
The answer is surprisingly mundane: they create Powerpoint presentations, engage in routine discourses in service encounters, chat with colleagues, send emails, sit in meetings, or sit in meetings and send emails to arrange other meetings."
Or how about this for a good one/two punch?:
Think of strategy discourse – although it is treated with great reverence, it is often fleeting, interchangeable, relatively meaningless and very ineffective. Similar things can be said about statements of organisational values which often seem to jumble together a whole set of nice sounding generic words like ‘quality’, ‘service’, ‘value’ and so on with little effect. Indeed, being a middle manager often means becoming adept at working with these ephemeral ‘weasel words’.
Spicer suggests that Bullshit is the talk and text which is blathered about with little concern for broadly shared understandings and experiences of reality within a particular social group or organization.
It is tempting to think that bullshit may be caused or created by a few individuals who have ambiguous approaches to the truth. In many settings this may indeed be true. However, organizational bullshit seems to go beyond just a few rogue employees - there appear to be whole organizations that actively encourage circulation and propagation of bullshit. Unfortunately, many of these can often be in the public sector, which may not be surprising if they are not that far separated from politics; one of the most prevalent propogators of bullshit.
"Bullshitting is hard work. It requires the capacity to continually come up with new, over-packed, ambiguous concepts. In fact, the creativity this requires is beyond the abilities of most organisational members. To bullshit, most people need a continued supply of discursive [varying from subject to subject] resources from external sources. Fortunately, there is a whole industry of consultants, gurus and other managerial idea workers who are charged with creating and circulating these discourses. The management ideas industry works through continually feeding out a series of fads and fashions [e.g. bullshit].
These typically are appealing not because they work, but because they are attractively packaged and promoted. This gives potential adopters a stock of ideas and discourses that they can use in their day-to-day acts of bullshit mongering."
In past work I've developed Bullshit Bingo cards - or Bumpf word Bingo cards - to assist in passing time at various organizational meetings (especially about 'big evil dragons'). Here is a version:
One can play the more difficult 'black-out' version, or simplify down to covering a line, or getting an "X" shape on the card.
As Spicer argues, organizations could and should spend some time ensuring they are giving substance to a limited number of ideas, and engaging in a lot more critical inquiry into what certain terms in fact mean, and how they may in fact be implemented. Buzz words often are, or quickly become - bullshit.
The problem with bullshit, as initially pointed out, is that it shrouds the real issues and generally benefits the bullshitter. Is it time to #stop_bullshit?