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Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshitby Laura Penny
Chapter 1: You're Soaking In It
No matter how cynical you become, it is never enough to keep up. —Lily Tomlin
We live in an era of unprecedented bullshit production. The more polite among you might call it poppycock or balderdash or claptrap, but the concept remains the same, and the same coursing stream of crapulence washes over us all, filling our eyes and ears and thoughts with cliches, euphemisms, evasions, and fabulations. Never in the history of mankind have so many people uttered statements that they know to be untrue. Presidents, priests, politicians, lawyers, reporters, corporate executives, and countless others have taken to saying not what they actually believe, but what they want others to believe—not what is, but what works.
I am not so naive as to lay claim to some golden age when everybody meant what they said, and said what they meant, and the world entire was bright with the glare of truth. First, I came to consciousness in the eighties, so people have been conducting themselves in a sleazy manner the whole of my short life. Second, every historical era conjures up its own lies, noble and banal. Since there have been snakes for the squeezing, there has been someone to flog their precious oil. We distinguish ourselves largely in terms of largeness. Our era is unique by virtue of its sheer scale, its massive budget, its seemingly unlimited capability to send bullshit hurtling rapidly over the globe.
There is so much bullshit that one hardly knows where to begin. The platitudinous pabulum that passes for stirring political rhetoric is bullshit. The scripted, question-proof events that pretend to be spontaneous exchanges are bullshit. The committee-crafted persona and the focus-grouped fad and the rule of the polls are straight-up bullshit. The disease hysteria du jour is bullshit, and so is the latest miracle pill. The new product that will change your life is probably just more cheap, plastic bullshit. We endure bullshit in the course of our workaday lives, in the form of management-speak memos about optimizing strategic objectives and result-based, value-added service delivery. We tolerate bullshit in common life-maintenance transactions, like banking and shopping. Most of what passes for news is bullshit, and even if you are so fortunate as to find things worth watching or reading, the content you desire will be punctuated with shills for things you don't need, like ginormous automobiles and toxic faux foodstuffs.
Even a cursory study of bullshit yields an embarrassment of riches, an all-you-can-eat buffet of phoniness, like when a Bush staffer eulogizes departing press secretary Ari Fleischer with the words, "His message discipline was extraordinary," a bullshit description of a peerless bullshitter. Or check out the Web presence of a swank PR firm, like Burson-Marsteller, mouthpieces for many a megacorp, and thrill to their proficiency in change communications, issues management, reputation management, and the coup de grace, personal and social responsibility.
"Your call is important to us" has been chosen from a very deep reservoir of bullshit phrases for the title of this book because it best exemplifies the properties native to bullshit. It tries to slather some nice on the result of a simple ratio: your time versus some company's dough. Like most bullshit, the more times you hear it, the bullshittier it gets. This is why bullshit is best served quickly, with many visuals, in mass quantities, with no questions from the floor.
Throughout this book, we will look at some of the world's muchness of bullshit. I have elected to proceed on a sector-by-sector basis, since bullshit is not just a phenomenon but an industry—one of the growth industries of the information age, in fact. But bullshit is not a single industry unto itself, nor a sector proper. Instead, it rides shotgun, running interference for all the major modern sectors. We shall commence by looking at the two fields of human endeavor that have distinguished themselves as the most prolific producers of bullshit: advertising and public relations, which get bonus points for encouraging the industries that follow in their wake to tart themselves up. Next, we will see how financial markets, corporate structures, and lax laws allow for more merde, with entire companies—your Enrons, your WorldComs—exposed as mortared with bullshit. Then we'll have a look at politics, which is a business as well, alas. Finally, we'll look at a few examples of bullshit produced by some of the sectors that affect your everyday life, like pharmaceuticals, insurance, the service industry, and the media.
We are all, of course, implicated in the bullshit pandemic as minor, small-scale producers of our own ordure. I would love to be hard-core like my favorite Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and declare that all lies are wrong, and that there are no circumstances whatsoever that condone untruth. Kant thinks that any lie, no matter how minor or well-intentioned, corrodes the universality and trust that people need to live freely, and I couldn't agree more. But I'd be lying if I said I never lied, and I'm sure you could conjure a million retarded Philosophy 101 variations on the theme of virtuous fibs. It is therefore crucial to note that there are very different orders of magnitude when it comes to bullshit.
Those couple of daily white lies, about bad haircuts and spousal girth and the like, are entirely harmless and preferable to the useless, hurtful truth. Good manners sometimes call for omission, editing, and the occasional fudge. However, if your secretary is shredding documents by the light of the moon, or your testimony before the House interrupts the soaps, or you have yet to visit the country where all your money lives, you have probably concocted a whopper of inordinate size.
Nor am I unduly concerned with the gap between appearance and reality with respect to the way the common man woos his wife, greets his co-workers, or combs his hair. It takes millions and millions of dollars, and a solid toehold in the public consciousness, to prick up my ears. When something installs itself in popular culture, that is when I begin to wonder about the gaps between what that thing does, says, and says about what it does. If I fault the spectacularly wealthy and powerful the more for embroidering the truth, it is not because they bullshit more frequently than their lunchmeat-munching lessers, but simply because they get a lot more out of it, thus setting a very bad example that ensures continued bullshitting all the way down the line. Dollars may not trickle down, but lessons and images certainly do.
I am even tempted to make the case that lying is less dangerous than bullshitting. In his essay "On Bullshit," professor Harry Frankfurt draws a subtle and useful distinction between lying and bullshitting. The liar still cares about the truth. The bullshitter is unburdened by such concerns. Bullshit-related phrases like bull session or talking shit also suggest a casual, careless attitude toward veracity—a sense that the truth is totally beside the point. Bullshit distracts with exaggeration, omission, obfuscation, stock phrases, pretentious jargon, faux-folksiness, feigned ignorance, and sloganeering homilies. When Dubya speaks of freedom and liberation, and claims to be praying for peace as the army disgorges load after load of bombs, he is not lying. He is bullshitting. A lie would be a simpler, more factual thing, like, nope, we aren't dropping any bombs. A lie would be easier to disprove. Bullshit is a committee-drafted simpleton's sermon about evildoers and terra and freedom being God's gift to all men.
This is bullshit because it tricks out a terrible thing in floaty, fulsome rhetoric. Bullshit is forever putting the rosiest of spins on rotten political and economic decisions. This is because bullshit is all about getting away with something, or getting someone to buy something in the broadest possible sense, which means covering arses or kissing them. Bullshit is always trying to be your buddy, getting all chummy with you, making greasy nice. Nobody passes a bill because they got a bale of cash from some industry concern; instead, they wax poetic about the good people of Any District who will benefit immensely from the new legislation. Nobody leaves office because they fucked up; no, they want to spend more time with their families. No mogul says I do it all for the money, suckers. They blah-dee-blah on about the company, or some magnificent abstract idea the company embodies.
Bullshit aggrandizes and amplifies. Sometimes this is a sign of the bullshitter's luxuriant self-regard, like when athletes or actresses praise the original G for their achievements. This is supposed to make the star in question seem humble as well as Christian, which is a very popular bullshit pose, particularly among the obscenely wealthy. Instead of striking a modest note, though, such statements imply that the supreme being has the time, inclination, and interest to fix the Oscars or the Super Bowl. Though the famous contribute plenty of name-brand bullshit to the culture, bullshit is more often produced anonymously. It tends to be cranked out by hacks and flacks, in the interest of aggrandizing and amplifying the object it is slathered all over, whether that's a celebrity, a product, a candidate, a disease, a war, a service, or an event.
Bullshit is not just happy talk. There are also bullshit scares and threats that hold the public in a thrall of fear, all the while eclipsing many genuinely problematic international developments. Prime-time newsmagazines like Dateline and 20/20 excel at uncovering the latest lurid crime or horror at home, airing gross buckets of alarmist bullshit about satanic nannies and con-artist plumbers. Cable networks shine when it comes to puffing up minor hobgoblins into major panics, like shark attacks or the Summer of SARS, and making made-for-TV miniseries like the one on the Laci Peterson case, and Saving Private Jessica, the book, the movie, and the centcom agitprop.
Bullshit also minimizes, making sure the proverbial buck never, ever stops. Such bullshit includes the fetid apologies of irresponsible corporations and unaccountable politicians, the excuse-making and name-changing that follow any mistake or massacre. Examples of this include Phillip Morris christening itself Altria, Enron restructuring itself into the utterly generic InternationalCo, and Dow's self-flagellating Bhopal website, which, amid the mea culpas, underlines the fact that they assume no legal liability for the misadventures of their offending subsidiary, Union Carbide.
One of the really fascinating things about bullshit is how utterly obvious a lot of it is. When one of the Enron dudes takes the stand and pleads the fifth or uses weasel phrases like "I cannot recall," he is not lying. He is bullshitting. He is bullshitting because the whole routine is so flagrantly false that it sails gaily past traditional notions of deception. It's not like he expects us to believe that early onset Alzheimer's has rendered that whole making-millions-of-dollars thing, like, a total blur. It is not a lame excuse or limp self-justification. Dude is not even trying. He is merely repeating the legally appropriate, self-protecting thing one says on such occasions, giving voice to the typical script.
Most people believe that they can recognize the typical script as such, and consider themselves excellent bullshit detectors. Bullshit detection is the stuff of which modern social bonds are made. We huddle in little clusters, or gather on the Web, rolling our eyes in unison, bitching and moaning about the bullshit. We praise the superior interpretative skills of our respective social sets and marvel at the terminally credulous cretins, somewhere out there, who are actually swallowing this bilge. And we talk this way whether we are discussing politics or pop culture. The fact that most of us feel like we can see through the prevailing pretenses but expect and accept them is part and parcel of the way bullshit works. Bullshit thrives on the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Cynicism, irony, and apathy—the ostensible markers of Gen Xers like me—are often dismissed by elder virtuecrats as a lack of good old-fashioned values. This virtuecratic stance may be more commonly associated with conservative politicians, but Democrats like Al Gore and Joe Lieberman have also been quick to pick on the usual pop-culture objects of blame, like video games, TV, movies, and rap music. When the banner of godliness is held aloft by hypocrites like William Bennett, who blew millions in Vegas even as he cranked out book after book of virtues, or Newt Gingrich, who talked family values but divorced his own wife in the midst of her terminal illness, it casts doubt on the very idea of a moral high ground.
Cynicism and apathy are, in fact, reasonable responses to the refulgent tide of bullshit in which we have bobbed all our lives. We have seen too many hopeful Reaganisms like "It's morning in America" give way to scandals like Iran-Contra. One of the reasons why people—particularly the young—are opting out of old-school civic duties like voting and reading the newspaper is that they are weary of bullshit.
It would be overstating the case, though, to claim that this apathy is a form of conscientious objection. Apathy is also a consequence of being, like, sooo totally distracted. There is a lot of other bullshit that is way more entertaining than the yawny old newspaper. North Americans live at the intersection of too much and too little information—a great location for bullshit production, since bullshit often begins with some little smidge of truth, like the hearsay headline or the overheard opinion. The bullshitter knows a little something, or thinks that he does, and rather than admit ignorance, soldiers bravely on. All of us, save for the most scrupulous, have doubtless blithered our way through a conversation regarding matters we do not know much about, like talking about "unrest"—a classic bullshit euphemism—in a place we couldn't point to on a map.
But too much information is no antidote to too little of it, since so much of this information is strictly commercial, ephemeral, or shorn of context. This semi-knowledge annexes valuable public and mental space, as do all the things not worth knowing that you can't not know, try though you may to avoid the Matrix sequels or the latest Britney Spears release.
There are several different dialects of bullshit, indigenous to various institutions and professions. We will look at these later, in detail, when we encounter the bizarre lingua francas of specific industries. But now I would like to draw a more basic distinction between the two major types of bullshit: the complex and the simple. Complex bullshit is also known as bafflegab or jargon, and it is the native argot of modern bureaucracy. Simple bullshit is all about the dumbed-down, the quick hit, the ad, or the blip on the cable news crawl. Most information in North America seems to come in one of two settings: Expert or Moron. Expert is the lengthy contract you sign to get a loan or mortgage from a bank, and Moron is the brightly colored brochure that encouraged you to bank at the First National House of Usury.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2005 by Laura Penny
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