in defense of "bullshit"

I use quotes above because what I aim to defend here is not bullshit itself, but rather, the linguistic convention of referring to ideas which have little or no relationship to reality as "bullshit".

Sullivan weighs in on the kerfuffle kicked up by Dan Savage over the weekend thusly:

The case must be made about the inconsistent way that Christianists read the Bible to tilt it focus entirely on gays. But the case against the hypocritical, selective reading of the Bible is so strong that it undermines it to use the term "bullshit".

In other words, Sully (who is naturally pretty sympathetic to Savage's larger points) makes essentially the same argument that Mr. D makes in the thread at his place: that you gain no ground using language that alienates the people whose mind you are trying to change.

Though I have great respect for both Sullivan and Mr. D, I think that this argument, is...well, I think it's bullshit.

People are not blank slates. It would be a lovely world indeed in which everyone could encounter facts presented objectively, entertain arguments made logically from universal first principles, and through calm, deliberate reasoning reach conclusions about what the world is, how it works, and how people can best construct a society as to interact with each other peacefully and productively.

This is not the world in which we live.

People come to the table with all sorts of preconceptions, prejudices, and dogmas. Some--perhaps many--are well-justified, rooted in deep experience, and work well as heuristics for at least their particular time and place in human history. We have a habit of referring to such heuristics as "truth". This is probably adaptive--reconstructing the moral universe every generation from zero is rather taxing--up until the point that it no longer is.

I can think of no more salient example than the fact that for all of human history up until about half a century ago, the physical and economic consequences of sexual activity outside the confines of a stable family structure recognized and supported by the larger social group were huge, and disproportionately so for women. In that context, it is perfectly understandable why sex outside of marriage would be seen as taboo--it was literally dangerous! It is further understandable that while it was critical to keep the womenfolk in line for their own good, the indiscretions of males could be more tolerated because they maintained a certain level of plausible deniability.

Giving women control over their reproductive function changed everything. The culture war we are still fighting to this day is 90% people still getting used to that one, utterly revolutionary change.

I've already digressed pretty far from the point I want to make, which is this: reason and gentle persuasion are admirable, but experience suggests that they are no match for dogma. Having a "cherished belief" directly challenged necessarily involves discomfort for the challenged. Without discomfort, there is no reason to discard dated, incorrect, harmful, bullshit beliefs.

Sometimes, you just have to aim an argument for the gut.

I want people who use their faith to justify bigotry to feel uncomfortable about it. They should be made to feel awful about the consequences of their professed beliefs. And beyond that, those that stand up for belief qua belief, while trying to maintain their personal distance from the bigots, should be forced to examine who and what it is that they are effectively defending.

I don't believe for a solitary second that this is about using the word "bullshit" instead of, say, "hooey" or "nonsense". Sure, there is a little more gut-level impact with "bullshit"--and therein lies its power--but the meanings are essentially the same. Let's not split linguistic hairs, when what we're really upset about is the content of the argument itself. Or more likely, the fact that it is even being made. 


Mr. D said...

Okay, I understand your point. I think it's bullshit. ;)

Actually, I don't, which is part of the objection I raise. The problem, at least for me, is that by calling something "bullshit," it ends the discussion. And for most people, it doesn't make them feel awful about their beliefs at all.

Guess it depends on the goal of the discussion -- persuasion or catharsis.

Brian said...

I think it's bullshit. ;)

Well, I was asking for that, wasn't I?

Maybe I'm just weird. If someone (at least someone I'm inclined to take seriously) tells me that my argument is bullshit, I will generally make an attempt to figure out why they think that is the case. For me, a bullshit-free life of the mind is something I strive for. And I know I'm not immune to bullshit (thought I like to think I'm at least making a better than average effort.)

I guess I just don't see it as (necessarily) a conversation-ender. For me, calling "bullshit" can be incredibly persuasive...if you can back it up.

But...maybe that's just me.

Mr. D said...

But...maybe that's just me.

I don't think it's just you, but you are part of a limited cohort.

And I agree, you do make a better than average effort in re avoiding bullshit. Of course, I might just be bullshitting you. ;)

Bike Bubba said...

The question is not whether you think the use of the term is warranted. It's whether it gets you anywhere, and the answer should--among educated people--be an emphatic no.

Besides, it's not like women don't still bear the lion's share of the fruit of fornication. With an STD infection rate approaching 50% and a 40% or so rate of unwed parenting, with the strongest predictor of poverty being....unwed motherhood.

And among Savage's demographic, a 15% HIV infection rate, a rate approaching that of prostitutes and IV drug users.

Never mind; you're right. The dogma that promoting condoms does something to curb STDs and other troubles of fornication is.....

...you got it. But I'm going to demonstrate it with data, not smears.