//21 October 2023

Calling calling bullshit

Somewhat inspired by this book, somewhat by real events, and somewhat of a rant I could point to whenever I need.

As I have done previously (to some extent) with privacy, today I tackle another “lonely word”, namely honesty. Or so I thought at first, but actually I want to write about calling bullshit.

It seemed easy to start off with how being honest just got re-branded as “calling bullshit”, while even more suitable words for it would be being candid, or blunt, or outspoken. In the end though, “calling bullshit” has a specific edge to it and it feels like the most relevant and current term. After all, there is such an abundance of bullshit to be called now.

That’s why I want to call bullshit on calling bullshit, in a sense. Or rather, on the common perception of what “calling bullshit” means. So here is a (non-exhaustive) list of things that, on their own, are not calling bullshit: sarcastic one-liners/deadpan humour, outright rudeness and/or jumping into conclusions.

The use of humour can be either amusing or annoying, and it can be part of the “calling bullshit” arsenal—when done right and in small doses, but seldom as the main course. By “done right” I mean it is situation-appropriate and genuinely witty, as opposed to the trite, predictable response. If you’re offering nothing but a wisecrack, better make it a good one.

Insulting someone and then defending yourself by saying “I’m just being honest” has long become a meme. It’s bullshitting the other person that you’re calling their bullshit. Which you might as well believe you’re actually doing, but that’s clearly not the best way to go about it. If you truly want to express your honesty and care at all if others hear you, you should probably skip the ad hominem. Just sayin’.

Lastly, the case when you just go with your knee-jerk response, or jump into a conclusion, is potentially even more detrimental than plain rudeness. No matter if you actually succeeded in calling the original bullshit, it’s likely that you are replacing it with other bullshit—the kind that just occurred to you right now. Or the kind you want to peddle for whatever reason.

This last bit is important. I also relate it to all sorts of “debunking” and “fact-checking” which are propaganda/marketing in disguise. I find it astonishing how easily we can dismiss one set of rules in favour of a new set. This remarkable adaptive ability comes at the price of being quite gullible/susceptible to bullshit.

The process of replacing the old set of rules with a new, better set (provided that it is indeed better) does look a lot like making progress. In some cases, it’s hard to argue it isn’t. But if the whole paradigm is to find the “best” set of rules to follow, I often see this converging to a comfort-zone scenario in which one indiscriminately adopts views and methods from people/sources one finds influential. I think it is fairly obvious why this is a problem—poison the well, muddle the waters and everyone gets lost—but I also feel a visceral aversion towards blind obedience, and likewise, blind contrarianism.

[ Often, we are advised to be wary of those who offer us a Solution™ (or tell us what we should/shouldn’t be doing). True, yet let me add—also beware of the stubborn defeatists who complain and ridicule ad infinitum without ever bringing anything to the table. Yes, in extreme cases, merely rejecting the status quo requires admirable effort and moral fortitude. A way of recognising these cases is to check the severity of repercussions for going astray. And yes, it is important that both positive and negative messages are being heard. What I’m basically saying is that in the end, the world owes you nothing. So if you choose to stay in your armchair of the bitter critic and ramble on, don’t be surprised if at some point people get up and leave the room. ]

Another link I’d like to make is between the inability to legitimately call bullshit and the inability to give or receive feedback (on which I wrote here). Sometimes you can’t do it because no one did it to you, or you rarely witnessed it done to someone else. And so, self-deception piles on, worse still—the smarter you are, the more likely it is you can rationalise and explain away the bullshit (“some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them”; “you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool” and all that). Thus, as everyone and your aunt has said many a times before me—if you want meaningful progress, advance in the art of calling your own bullshit. In fact, it will help you to see through the bullshit of others as well.

Let me wrap this up with a morsel of pathos. Calling bullshit can be a noble quest, but never a crusade. Calling bullshit requires rationality and logic, but is still a human act infused with sentiment and prone to error. Calling bullshit is not merely naming a falsehood, it offers at least an attempt at explaining why something is false. Calling bullshit is a skill to learn and hone, not a superpower some people have and some don’t.

Calling bullshit is not wrinkling your nose at the unpleasant smell of life, it’s rolling up your sleeves and cleaning up some of the mess, again and again. Whenever you claim you are calling bullshit, this is actually what you’re getting into. You have been warned.