June 7, 2008

The Engine of Bullshit

You don’t have to say something (specific) to say something.

For example, you can inflect your voice in a particular way.

SHE looks nice.

She LOOKS nice.

She looks NICE.

These are three different statements using the same three words in the same gramatical relationship. Now, for the next step:

SHE looks nice. (I didn’t SAY the other one is ugly.)

She LOOKS nice. (I didn’t SAY she’s a bitch.)

She looks NICE. (I didn’t SAY she’s a slut.)

Here’s another way to say something (specific) without saying something: the enthymeme — a rhetorical syllogism, in which part of the logical sequence is left unstated. Its persuasive power comes from an interesting fact of human interpretation: The audience will fill in the missing part.

But what do they fill in with? That’s the tricky part. The speaker can never be in complete control. But the speaker can, by manipulating the rhetorical situation, steer some members of the audience in a particular direction. And if that direction is, say, bullshit, then the structure “I didn’t SAY X” becomes a useful way of distancing one’s self from one’s bullshit.

Now that I have you all primed, go read this interesting examination of the McClellan book by Shelodon Rampton. Here’s the money quote:

In other words, the White House found ways of creating the appearance of a relationship between Iraq and 9/11, while being careful not to actually say so specifically. This is the essence of spin, bluffing, or bullshitting if you prefer to call it that. And it turns out that a great deal can be accomplished by way of deceiving people, without necessarily telling specific, nailable lies. For obvious reasons, politicians prefer this approach whenever possible, but in the process they create an environment — McClellan calls it a “permanent campaign” — which makes the distinction between truth and falsehood indiscernible, even (and in fact especially) to the spinners themselves. They can therefore “shun the truth” without seeing themselves as liars and later claim that they were not “willful or conscious” of what they were doing.

Aristotle describes the enthymeme in On Rhetoric. That was about 2,400 years ago. Man, stick with what works!

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