Bullshitting bulshitters and the bullshit they say
It is fitting that The Daily Show had Harry Frankfurt as a guest: Frankfurt is the author of the popular “On Bullshit”, and one aim of The Daily Show, especially in its 1st and 2nd segments, is to call out bullshit as they see it. The assumption, both of the show and of its admirers, seems to be that identifying bullshit is always morally and politically significant (not to mention funny, but this aspect is not my focus). The aim of this paper is to show that, although this assumption is substantially correct, the truth is rather more complicated. The reason is that bullshit can be defensible, even good. I will show this by attending more closely to bullshitting and the bullshitter than Frankfurt does. Frankfurt identifies lack of concern for the truth/falsity of one’s utterances as the hallmark of bullshit. I will show that even given this, it can be good. However, this defense pertains directly to speech contexts that aim at truth, such as educational contexts. Political speech is different. To determine whether the defense of bullshit transfers to political contexts, I will attend to the value and role of truth in political speech. I will argue that, due to the derivation of political authority from the individual autonomy of the governed in liberal democracies, political bullshit is very rarely justifiable. One upshot is that skills that are valuable in educational contexts turn out to be dangerous in political ones. Another is that The Daily Show turns out to have a valuable function protecting liberal democracy, insofar as it functions as an effective political bullshit detector. I will conclude with reflections on whether The Daily Show itself produces bullshit, and if so, whether it is problematic.