English is a wonderfully expressive language; far more than, for example, French, which for all its pretensions of sophistication is actually quite limited in its depth and precision. Much of this has to do with the anarchic evolution of English – nobody has ever really been in charge of creating or curating it. By contrast, the Academie Francaise has existed for centuries now as official arbiters of what constitutes proper French, and, as many such august bodies of credentialed academics have done in their respective fields, have progressively made their language worse by the formulation of rules that are eminently logical and completely wrongheaded. Perhaps the most important of their ongoing quests has been to streamline the French language by ridding it of redundancies – taking words that they deem to be essentially identical in meaning, choosing one to keep, and then banishing the rest from the canon of acceptable vocabulary. While this has made French a very efficient language (official logic is good at creating efficiency), it has also robbed it of much of its richness. In contrast, English contains many, many words that, while very close in definition, impart a very slightly differing shade of meaning or context from each other. Thus, in English, very fine gradations of meaning can be achieved with proper word choice, while in French, these distinctions either have to be explained in depth or left ambiguous. This is what makes English an excellent language for both science and literature, while French, for all its attempts at centrally-planned logical efficiency, is clunky and unwieldy at both. It has even been suggested that this is why French has produced many good authors, but really no great ones – nobody on the level of Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Poe, or Tolkien. Whatever their natural talents may be, the limits of their language simply don’t grant them the tools necessary to achieve such greatness.
A good example of the rich vocabulary that gives English its remarkable descriptiveness is the word “bullshit”. I am hardly the first to write about the depth and versatility of this remarkable word, which, so far as I know, has no real equivalent in any other language. The Academie would have banished it for being too close in meaning to “false” or “incorrect”, but that’s not quite really what it means. In fact it is entirely possible for a statement to be 100% factually correct, and still be complete bullshit. This happens when that factually correct idea is exaggerated, taken out of context, or otherwise distorted in order to be used in bad faith as a pretext for some action that would otherwise be rightly seen as immoral, unwise, oppressive, or absolute lunacy.
There has never been a better moment to contemplate this truth, as this juncture in our civic life is positively swimming in factually-correct bullshit.
Examples abound, both minor and major. Take, for example, the “gluten-free” craze that has almost certainly overtaken your favorite grocery store in recent years. It is absolutely factually true that there is a small percentage of people whose health can benefit from eating gluten-free foods. But unless you’ve been diagnosed as having a very specific and rare food allergy by your doctor, you’re not one of them. And neither are 99% of the people who’ve been buying gluten-free foods during this fad, either. They’ve simply accepted on faith an implied (though carefully never stated outright) claim that it’s better for them somehow, and certainly better enough that it’s worth paying a dollar or two more for. None of the people producing or marketing gluten-free foods to the general public have ever made any false statements about what they are or what they do. There’s no lie involved. But it’s also indisputable that gluten-free foods are bullshit, and the whole fad around them is no more than a pretext to squeeze gullible soccer moms into paying extra money for something that (unless they really are one of the tiny percentage diagnosed with a gluten allergy) is of no benefit to them whatsoever.
But this is merely a minor league example. Big league bullshit invariably involves much more powerful players.
For many years, my go-to example of factually-correct bullshit has been the Big Tobacco settlements of the late 90s and early 00s. Is it true that smoking is insanely unhealthy, and leads to horrendous health problems? Certainly. I was my mother’s caretaker as she died of lung cancer brought on by 50 years of smoking. It is not an easy way to go, and was not a pleasant experience for either her or me. I personally have never smoked, nor do I recommend smoking to anybody. That the factual claim used as the core of the push for the settlement is true and valid is beyond any reasonable doubt. But the reality of the settlement has been this: The public was promised that all the money it generated would go into the health care system, pouring billions into it in order to pull it back from the brink of a looming insolvency caused in no small part by the enormous costs of having to treat diseases brought on by smoking. Instead, a huge cut went to the politically-connected lawyers who negotiated the settlement, and the rest was poured into the General Fund so that politicians could waste it on all of the usual bullshit that politicians waste money on (most especially the thinly-veiled vote-buying schemes that masquerade as public charity in our democracy). So little of it went to actual health care, that within a decade we were all being told that we needed to pass Obamacare to save the health care system from the same onrushing insolvency that the tobacco settlement money was supposed to fix. The whole thing was a scam – the science behind it was all solid, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t bullshit.
Of course, they then moved on to Global Warming, which was rebranded as Climate Change when exceptionally shaky data made the “warming” claims into a weak leg to stand on. Despite this, I will be the first to admit that I don’t personally know for sure whether any unusual climate change is, in fact, happening, or what might be causing it if it is. Maybe all of their claims are true, and maybe they aren’t. But even if it is all based in solid fact and science, I do have one question about the matter for which I will require an answer before I regard it as bullshit: Has the left ever encountered a crisis which had a solution that involved the public handing less money and power over to them and their allies in the Public/Private Woke Coalition? Surely, logic would dictate that there would have to be just one out there somewhere, wouldn’t it?
Yes, it is obvious that George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis Police involved some serious misconduct on their part (though, frankly, there was probably no lack of it on his part, either). Yes, this indicates that there are serious problems with policing in this country. Yes, police training – both initial and recurrent – is uniformly awful, which has led to one appalling incident after another. But the idea that our cities burned for two weeks straight because of any of that is bullshit. It was simply a pretext for a communist (and yes, I used that word, because that’s precisely who they are, whether they call themselves that or not) uprising for which the ground work was carefully planned long beforehand, the goal of which is to help evict Donald J. Trump from the White House by any means necessary.
And then there is the coronavirus pandemic. My position on the scientific facts surrounding the disease and the proper response to them hasn’t changed one bit. I am still a moderate on them. Yes, coronavirus is a serious matter. Yes, it was worth shutting down the economy for a few weeks until we had a better understanding of it as a health threat and could get a proper handle on the situation. Yes, therefore, I think that the Trump approach was a reasonable one. But it has also become obvious that the power-hungry and dishonest in the Establishment have been using it as a pretext to take actions that help them achieve their goals. It does so in multiple ways. One, of course, has been to turn the economy into a kamikaze plane aimed squarely at the deck of the USS Trump, hoping to sink any chance that he has to retain power after the upcoming election. But a more important goal is to get the people used to taking immoral, unconstitutional, and tyrannical orders from the government after it has declared some manner of “emergency” (and you can count on the fact that once they are in power, they will ensure that a perpetual state of emergency exists so that your obedience will always be required). Everyone who has been following recent events has undoubtedly seen stories like this: gatherings of ten at a church are prohibited, and the police will be sent to break them up by force; meanwhile gatherings of 10,000 at a George Floyd protest are encouraged, and the police will even be instructed to allow the “peaceful protesters” to sack and burn their own station houses if that’s what they feel like doing. The reasons for this are obvious, and so is the conclusion to be drawn from them. It’s not that coronavirus is a hoax, that it’s “just the flu, bro”, or that it wasn’t worth taking seriously – it wasn’t any of those things. It’s not that we were wrong to take carefully-considered, appropriate steps to keep it from becoming a disastrous health crisis – we weren’t. It’s that coronavirus is bullshit.
From all of this, we can take a look at the bigger picture: “The Experts”, with all of their credentials worn prominently on their sleeves, are incessantly paraded in front of you in order to deliver condescending lectures on “the facts”, and especially on how “the science is settled”. And maybe it is. Maybe everything that they are telling you is absolutely, unquestionably, beyond any shadow of doubt, factually correct. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t bullshit.
Make sure you know (and can articulate) the difference.