“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” writes philosopher Harry Frankfurt. “Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.” Frankfurt’s slim volume, entitled On Bullshit, is one of those few works that makes me proud to have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. At least one of us in the guild has produced something useful and of substance.
Harry Frankfurt is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. He wrote this little gem in 2005.
Frankfurt is convinced that most of us think we can recognize bullshit when we see it, and that we are quite mistaken. As a result, most of us are routinely taken in by some variety of BS or another in our daily lives. He sets out to define and describe bullshit in such a way that people in general can be equipped to both recognize and reject bullshit when it is placed in our path.
“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something,” Frankfurt writes. “There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline” (page 23). Frankfurt notes that BS is analogous to shoddy, knock-off merchandise that the seller knowingly offers as the real deal.
The counterfeit character of BS is one mark of the substance. In addition, Frankfurt suggests, bullshit tends to claim more authority for itself than can be warranted. It has the character of exaggeration, hyperbole, and some measure of fabrication to support whatever has been asserted.
This is not, Frankfurt notes, intentional lying. It is, rather, a sort of mindless expression which the speaker assumes (consciously or not) that the listener will simply let slide because it’s too much work to track down the excesses. The bullshitter’s fault is not so much the failure to get things right but rather the failure to even try to get things right (page 32).
“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are,” Frankfurt concludes, “that I regard as of the essence of bullshit” (pages 33-34).
Bullshit is language emptied of meaning and truth just as “excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed,” Frankfurt notes. “Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted” (page 43). BS is language from which the vital elements of meaning and truth have been removed – and are not missed!
So, to summarize, bullshit is not necessarily true or false. Rather, it is rhetoric which is simply unconcerned with whether truth matters. “What bullshit essentially misrepresents,” Frankfurt continues, “is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs” (page 53). Rather, “the fact abut himself that bullshitter hides,” Frankfurt argues, “is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him” (page 54).
In essence, Frankfurt proposes, the bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out,” Frankfurt observes, “or makes them up, to suit his purpose” (page 56).
Therefore, Frankfurt concludes, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are” (page 61). I would add that the greatest friend the bullshitter has is the rest of us who believe to one degree or another that truth still exists. Part of the power asymmetry which the bullshitter exploits is precisely that differential approach to whether or not truth matters. This describes to some degree, I think, the difference between the major American political parties at this point in history.
The application of Frankfurt’s work to the rhetoric associated with Donald Trump and the current Republican party is both transparent and apparent. Frankfurt speaks “prophetically” about the precise rhetorical strategy which is the beating heart of Trumpism. Bullshit is what we get when truth is subservient to the acquisition and maintenance of power. In the hands of the powerful, positioned, and privileged, bullshit is a deadly substance. Such people have the capacity to insist that bullshit is Reality and to penalize anyone who dares to differ.
Why is this a useful discussion in the study of the beheading of John the Baptizer? I would suggest that a definition of the role of the biblical prophets, including John (and Jesus) is to name publicly, identify, and oppose the bullshit of the powerful, positioned, and privileged. When prophets do such a thing, they often pay for that behavior with their property, their liberty, and (often enough) their lives.
John names what everyone knows – that Antipas has broken the law and violated cultural and religious norms. More than that, Antipas, and his household, assert that this arrangement is normal and good. Nothing to see here, they say. Move along and tend your business. Everything is fine.
But John declares that everything is not fine. No amount of power, position, and privilege can change the facts of the case. John is, therefore, faced with a choice. Be quiet or be killed. By the time we get to our narrative, that choice no longer exists for John. The question is not if he will die but only when and how.
One of the hallmarks of bullshit is that when it is called out, the response is violent rage. We can see that in the character of Herodias in our text. We can see that as well in the characters of the Jerusalem elites who make sure that Jesus is silenced after he calls out the bullshit going on in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Anti-bullshit artists have, on average, relatively short life spans – especially in authoritarian regimes.
I want to connect this to current conversations about anti-racism, critical race theory, history, and the like. We can, I think, leave the details of critical race theory aside. The real issue is that CRT is an anti-bullshit methodology. It simply asks, “What really happened? How did things get this way?” It is, like many academic disciplines, an attempt to get a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain.”
Therefore, we should not be surprised when the response is white rage, verging on homicidal insanity. Certain commentators have mused that perhaps critical race theorists should be erased from the conversation somehow. And certain of those commentators are not all that choosy about how the erasure happens. Short of that, state legislatures are erasing the conversation itself from school curricula in order to sustain the overarching bullshit narrative of white supremacy and innocence.
This strategy is the essential strategy of white supremacy. Kaitlin Curtice puts it this way in Native. “A thread runs through the history of America, a thin line that connects people, places, moments, cultures, and experiences. This thread started when Columbus arrived and deemed Indigenous peoples savage and unworthy of life, a thread that continued as African peoples were enslaved and forced onto this continent. We see it today in hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. It is a thread of whiteness,” Curtice argues, “of white supremacy, that aims to erase culture, to assimilate those deemed “unworthy” of humanity.” (page 13).
“You shall know the Truth,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “and the Truth shall make you free.” We church people should be determined, deliberate, dauntless friends of Truth, wherever it takes us. That is, we Jesus followers should be implacable enemies of bullshit. Yet, in my experience, white churches have been and continue to be revered repositories of all sorts of bullshit – especially of the supremacist kind. We need only observe the theological self-cannibalism society called the Southern Baptist Convention to note the truth of the previous statement.
My own theological tribe, however, is not about to cast the first stone in this matter. We draft social statements, messages, policies, and letters. They have some impact in a few places. But for the most part, we are just as white, upper-middle-class, and insular as we were forty years ago. The quality of the bullshit is perhaps more refined, but the substance has changed very little.
Perhaps this is part of why John’s execution is in Mark’s account in such exquisite detail. We can kill in order to sustain the bullshit, or we can die in opposition to it.
There’s a topic for discipleship discernment, eh?
References and Resources
Black, C. Clifton. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-mark-614-29-3.
Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Jennifer A. Glancy , ” Unveiling Masculinity : The Construction of Gender in Mark 6:17-29,” Biblnt 2 (1994): 34-50.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.
Kraemer, R. (2006). Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy? Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 321-349. doi:10.2307/27638363.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2020.
Noegel, Scott B. “CORPSES, CANNIBALS, AND COMMENSALITY: A LITERARY AND ARTISTIC SHAMING CONVENTION IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST.” Journal of Religion and Violence, vol. 4, no. 3, 2016, pp. 255–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26671507. Accessed 1 July 2021.
Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-mark-614-29-5.
Sandmel, S. “Herod (Family).” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1962. Pages 585-594.
Smit, Peter-Ben. “The Ritual (De)Construction of Masculinity in Mark 6: A Methodological Exploration on the Interface of Gender and Ritual Studies.” Neotestamentica, vol. 50, no. 2, 2016, pp. 327–352. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26417640. Accessed 1 July 2021.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.