Poisonous Words: Arrogance, Bullshit and Accusations of Lying in Public Discourse23 April 2018
As is common with international incidents today, the Skripal case, in which a Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury, England, has generated an abundance of fake news, conspiracy theories, deceptions, misleading, bullshit and lying. There have been many accusations of lying and one or two of these can be confirmed relatively easily. Thus British foreign secretary Boris Johnson claimed on German television that when he visited the military research laboratory at Porton Down, scientists had been ‘absolutely categorical’ that the nerve agent used on the Skripals was manufactured in Russia, but the chief executive of the facility later confirmed that the scientists could only establish the nature of the agent, not its source. Johnson has a confirmed history of lying so we can be fairly confident that he lied in this case. Similarly, given Putin’s record of shameless lying, when he claimed, against robust evidence, that Russia had never developed the Novichok agent in the first place, we can be fairly sure that at best he was being deceptively equivocal: not ‘Russia’ but the ‘Soviet Union’ or not ‘Novichok’ but ‘A-232’.
In many cases of public discourse, though, the leap from factual falsity to accusations of lying is based more on faith than fact. Indeed, establishing factual incorrectness is often taken as a proxy for lying. For example, the Pulitzer prize-winning US fact-checking site Politifact has a truth scale that runs from ‘true’ through gradings of true and false to the graphic ‘pants-on-fire’, which they define as ‘the statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim’. Yet there has been a clear consensus since at least Augustine that factual falsity is not a necessary condition of lying: we can make factual mistakes while being truthful and inadvertently tell the truth while lying. Whatever else it is, lying must involve false belief: the speaker must believe that what they say is not true. We feel a great sense of injustice when we are wrongly accused of lying even when we know we were wrong in fact. That sense of injustice derives from an understanding that only we can know what we believed when we made the putatively ‘lying’ statement. We feel it is extraordinarily arrogant for the speaker to assume that they know better than us what we were thinking. Accordingly, calling someone a liar is always implicitly an arrogant discursive act, whatever the rights or wrongs of the accusation. It is arrogant because it closes down the discursive possibility that the speaker has made a genuine mistake. Humility in discourse, then, would require us to be cautious in calling out liars.
‘Cheap’ accusations of lying demonstrate a fundamental difference between the account of bullshit I develop in my forthcoming OUP book on the analysis of untruthfulness in public discourse and the seminal account in Frankfurt’s influential work On Bullshit. Frankfurt is concerned principally with distinguishing a form of intentional deception that values truth (i.e. lying) from one that shows no concern with the truth (i.e. bullshit) and he argues that bullshit is worse than lying precisely because it devalues truth as a whole. Frankfurt’s bullshit, like lying, is a form of deliberate insincerity based on a false belief: whereas the liar believes that what they are saying is false, the bullshitter believes that they have no evidence for what they are asserting as true. In the case of Frankfurtian bullshit, I talk of the speaker transitively bullshitting the hearer. It is possible, for example, to bullshit the hearer by making accusations of lying if you neither know nor care whether the ‘liar’ is in fact lying. However, bullshitting suffers the same problem as lying in the practical analysis of public discourse: how can we know that the speaker does not believe what they are saying however ‘ridiculous’ it might seem to us? People who claim they have been abducted by aliens may well be deluded but they often genuinely believe that this has really happened to them.
In my book I ask the reader to imagine a putative US president who lives in such an alt-right media echo chamber that he is only exposed to fake or low-credibility information and, consequently, he believes his ‘ridiculous claims’ because he knows no better. In this case, ‘Credulous Trump’ is neither lying (he does not believe that what he is saying is untrue) nor bullshitting (he does not believe that what he is saying has no foundation). According to traditional accounts, Credulous Trump is simply ‘mistaken’ and bears no ethical responsibility for his ridiculous beliefs. Yet while we can all demonstrate at times the intellectual vice of epistemic irresponsibility in not taking sufficient care in establishing our facts, under certain conditions the speaker can become epistemically negligent and thus morally wrong: namely when, (1) they have a duty of epistemic care and, in proportion to that duty, (2) they do not investigate sufficiently and (3) they do not hedge their claim sufficiently. Thus, when real Trump tweeted ‘Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day’ he was being epistemically negligent because (1) as a presidential candidate he had a strong duty of epistemic care towards the electorate, (2) even minimal investigation would have revealed that large-scale voter fraud was extremely unlikely, and (3) instead of hedging the ridiculous claim, he expressed it as a self-evident truth. Trump, in this case, may or may not have been lying, he may or may not have been bullshitting, but he most evidently was producing ‘bullshit’, or pathological discourse resulting from a reckless disregard of evidence.
So while it is possible to lie to or bullshit the hearer through accusations of lying, much more commonly such accusations are simple acts of bullshit: the accuser believes the ‘liar’ is lying but without evidential grounding for false belief. Such bullshit accusations are arrogant not because they show any form of intentionality but because the speaker has implied that they have privileged access to another’s mind.
Image: All my explanations are rubbish cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Des Blenkinsopp – geograph.org.uk/p/4754734