Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind

I'm a little embarrassed to say I've never read the influential essay On Bullshit by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, or even read anything about it, in part because it never occurred to me that I needed to. I've felt very clear on what I took to be the subject, making the distinction between lying and bullshit, with my own semiotic theory of the former (the object of a lie is to hide a particular truth, so its structure is dictated by that function) and a general moral understanding that lies are bad (they're hiding something) and bullshit is more or less harmless (it doesn't seem to do anything, beyond entertainment, in which case you can call it jive or more grandly fiction).

But apparently Frankfurt's philosophical idea is compatible with my semiotics, but much more original and interesting than I imagined, as I learn from a Substack post of the other day by the very-online political scientist Daniel Drezner. In fact bullshit (entertainment bullshit excepted, I should say) is worse than lying, as Frankfurt writes:

The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

Lying respects the truth; bullshit blows it to smithereens. 

The idea has a kinship with the idea that "hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue"—a hypocrite is someone who respects right conduct enough to pretend to be virtuous himself. Which is what Drezner's talking about, actually, though he doesn't quote La Rochefoucauld. 

Drezner distinguishes between state actors that are hypocrites, with a set of principles that they don't actually live up to, and those that are "cynical", with no principles at all:

The U.S. is a hypocritical actor in world politics. But to be a hypocrite means that one believes in larger principles in the first place. The other great powers in world politics, namely Russia and China, are more cynical than hypocritical. And there is a difference between these two approaches....

A hypocritical actor in world politics will knowingly or unknowingly lie on occasion. A cynical actor in world politics will say anything at any moment to achieve their desired end.

The primary example he starts with is the shocked-shocked reaction of the United States to Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas in what's always billed as the first violent attempt to change borders in Europe since World War II, which we must all denounce, and yet, Mr. Hypocritical USA, didn't you yourself sign on to Israel's claim to a piece of Syria, the Golan Heights, and Morocco's annexation of the former Spanish Sahara?

Yes, the US is a hypocrite there, though (a) both of these offenses were committed by the Trump administration, and (b) both of them were part of the Israel policy developed not only by Trump and his son-in-law but also Secretary Mike "Red Heifer" Pompeo (the reason for recognizing Morocco's sovereignty over the 80% of Western Sahara that it has illegally occupied since 1975 was as a bribe in return for Morocco's recognizing Israel in the "Abraham Accords"), of "Well, when Israel does it, that means it is not illegal." But Biden hasn't reversed these things, in spite of a lot of criticism, the review of the Western Sahara policy announced in January 2021 still hasn't finished, if it's even started, and nobody's willing to take questions. The problem is apparently that they can't make a decision without offending somebody, and not just Israel (Morocco really wants its conquest recognized; Algeria, which backs the indigenous independence movement in Western Sahara, the Polisario Front, really wants it not to be); so they're equivocating, for as long as they can, which is a kind of lie. But they try to give the impression that they're working on it, another lie, because they know they ought to be, and they know we know too. 

Russia, in contrast, does not bother to show "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind", as the saying goes, for instance in its statements on the war, which is not a war (it's an otherwise undefined "special military operation" and we're not told what's special about it), in Ukraine, which is not a country with a national language but an ancient part of Russia where some people speak Russian so badly you can't understand it, currently under the sway of Nazis who control western Europe (to be distinguished from the far-right, anti-immigrant and antisemitic political parties Russia supports with advocacy and money in Hungary, Poland, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and UK—Ukip still exists). These tales are not lies, in the sense that Russian authorities make no attempt to persuade anybody to agree with them, other than by imprisoning and killing journalists and others who challenge them. 

Or choose your own examples, perhaps from the current state of the Trumpery: Chairman James Comer of the House Oversight Committee, who's been calling endlessly for openness from Hunter Biden, turning around to reject Biden's offer to testify in public and demanding a private deposition; or Trump's own lawyers soberly alleging that Trump's activities attempting to overturn the 2020 election were part of his duties as president and therefore immune from prosecution. They are what Drezner calls "cynical", but I think that's a misleading term, "cynicism" evoking  a quality many regard as admirable or at least normal; I prefer the one Hakeem Jeffries introduced to the discourse, "shameless", which says it pretty plainly. 

Hypocrisy is not a good thing, I'm sure, but we're definitely not going to get rid of it. As Drezner suggests, though, we can learn to minimize our own hypocrisy, as individuals and as a country conducting its diplomatic business, and we can learn to cope with it in others, as we do with everyday lies. Really, when I ask you "How's it going?" and you tell me "Fine" instead of giving me an itemized list, I don't think there's even anything morally wrong with that. Less benign manifestations still allow us to talk, out of the assumptions we share even when we're not exactly living according to them The shamelessness we've been confronted with in recent years, on the other hand, can't be coped with at all—it destroys the possibility of discourse.

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