Bullshit, Politics, and the Democratic Power of Satire | Paul Babbitt | 2013

Satire can be an antidote, says Prof. #PaulBabbitt @muleriders , to #bullshit (c.f. rhetoric; hypocrisy; crocodile tears; propaganda; intellectual dishonesty; politeness, etiquette and civility; commonsense and conventional wisdom; symbolic votes; platitudes and valence issues).

While lying is a misrepresentation of the truth, [Harry] Frankfurt argues, BS is an indifference to truth and a misrepresentation of the self—and worse than lying.

[…] BS is not only deceptive but also contributes to the decay of public discourse. Its emptiness, its meaninglessness crowd out substantive discussion. It directs attention to the trivial as much as the false, and it dumbs us down. Unlike the lie, BS derives its effectiveness from the way it says nothing while appearing to say something profound. […]

There’s no cure for BS, but there is a powerful treatment: satire, which can identify and mock BS, resistant as it is to conventional modes of argumentation and dispute. At its best, satire exposes the pretensions of the powerful. Irreverence sometimes troubles us, but irreverence, or at least the tension between reverence and irreverence, is essential to democracy. Reverence inspires an adherence to authority that is undemocratic at its core. In challenging authority, humor performs a critical democratic duty.

Babbitt, Paul. 2013b. “Taking BS Seriously.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 18, 2013. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Taking-BS-Seriously/142967.
Illustration by @bloch_serge, in Babbitt 2013b, The Chronicle of Higher Education

The short article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 2013) was preceded by a longer article for the American Political Science Association (August 2013).

If the opposite of bullshit is sincerity, then it may seem odd to offer satire as counter-measures. The mechanisms of exposing bullshit come close to bullshit itself. Satire is, after all, insincere. Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report is a transparent persona that seems to have little to do with the actual person Stephen Colbert. Because it is transparent, though, it would be unfair to accuse Colbert of practicing bullshit in the same way that Callicles does. We may distinguish easily between the obvious and transparent performance of Stephen Colbert and the dissembling of a politician. […]

Humor may be mean spirited and cruel. However, to object to comedy because it is irreverent, because it challenges authority is to deny its most important power. It is precisely those modes that have the best chance of exposing bullshit to the ridicule it deserves. […]

There are good reasons to use such a strategy, and they can help us understand the purpose of satire in our own political environment. The fact that the satirist may pay with her life is perhaps the best evidence we have of its subversive quality. Satire sometimes provokes feelings of violation and violent reactions. Satire is irreverent, and they may target things you or I hold sacred. [….]

The only rule the bullshitter follows is to say anything so long as it works. As long as the bullshitter refuses to abide by standards of transparency and honest exchange of ideas then there is no choice but to engage the bullshitter on different ground. The satirist does not follow the same rules as the serious journalist or pundit. In the main, political humor is cast as critical, even destructive precisely because the humorist does not play by the same rules as “respectable” journalists. The rule breaking characteristic of the satirist is an important element in satire’s subversive character. It is not just that the satirist is targeting important powers of the system, it is that the satirist does not follow the rules either. [….]

There is of course an ugly side to this—a mass, largely uninformed audience may not be able to distinguish between exposing bullshit and mocking serious and sophisticated arguments—pomposity is to an extent a subjective evaluation of others. Comedy is indiscriminate in its targets. It not only poses questions, but it subjects its targets to ridicule. In its leveling, it erases distinctions and hierarchies that in fact are important
elements in any human society. (McWilliams 1995) The informed and concerned public servant is as likely to be ridiculed as the most foolish politician. Comedy can and does expose the tendency of the public to follow the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, the kind of comedy most citizens will see, hear, or read has entertainment as its primary purpose. It does not escape the commercial imperative. One should suspect that if there is a choice between making money and performing a civic duty, money making will win out.

Babbitt, Paul. 2013a. “Bullshit, Politics, and the Democratic Power of Satire.” In American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting. Chicago. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2301256.

References

Babbitt, Paul. 2013a. “Bullshit, Politics, and the Democratic Power of Satire.” In American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting. Chicago. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2301256.

Babbitt, Paul. 2013b. “Taking BS Seriously.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 18, 2013. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Taking-BS-Seriously/142967.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 2009. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. https://press.princeton.edu/titles/7929.html.

#bs, #satire