Do you ever feel irritated by other people? By things you see and hear on television? By situations you have to put with on a daily basis? Guess
what? You have lots of company. What I’m talking about here deserves to be the subject of a book of at least 500 pages – or maybe 5,000 pages. In fact, a number of books have already been written on the subject.
One that’s been getting a lot of attention lately is a little 67-pager titled On Bullshit, written by Harry Frankfurt, a former philosophy professor at Princeton University. Another tome on this intellectual topic due out in July is Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit, by Laura Penny. Publishers have correctly assumed that bullshit is a subject of great interest to many people.
Professor Frankfurt’s book is not meant to be a spoof. Though it contains some humor, he is deadly serious about his viewpoint on the cultural phenomenon people fondly refer to as “bullshit.”
Frankfurt explains that the person who engages in this national pastime “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
But, enough of this, er … bullshit. In the name of civility, from this point on I will use the more respectable term “B.S.” It doesn’t have quite the same laser-like clarity as the longer version, but it goes down much easier. (Hmm … maybe not such a great choice of words.)
Even mainstream 60 Minutes did a show on B.S. about a month ago when Morley Safer interviewed Professor Frankfurt. Many examples of blatant B.S. were presented to the viewer.
Two of the better ones were Bill Clinton’s looking into the camera and spewing out those now classic zingers, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” and “That depends upon what the meaning of is is.”
But let’s be fair and balanced here. Remember Richard Nixon looking into the camera and saying, “I’m no crook”? What a refreshing revelation to hear from the president of the United States.
I’ve never been able to figure out why he chose to use the very word that everyone was already thinking. He should have put it in a more positive light and said something like, “I’m an honorable man.” Which still would have been B.S., but if you’re going to B.S., why not do it in a positive way?
But B.S. is certainly not restricted to politicians. In fact, most of what you see on TV is B.S. Take Oprah, for example – please, take her! To suggest that Oprah is not on a par with Mother Teresa is considered heresy, even unpatriotic. Oprah gives new meaning to the term “sacred cow.”
How about Paris Hilton, who has become rich(er) and famous just for being a naughty girl with chutzpah. Or O. J. Simpson’s acquittal? Or the droning acceptance speeches at the Oscars?
Then there’s television advertising, 99 percent (make that 99.99 percent) of which is B.S. Unlike beer and car commercials, the hard-sell pitches of QVC and Home Shopping Network actually get results. Even so, they are based primarily on large doses of B.S.
Of course, if you didn’t already know everything I’ve just said about television, you probably think Katie Couric is a sweet young lady, The Apprentice (and Donald Trump’s appearance on it) are real life, and David Letterman is a comedic genius.
What about sports? Where do I begin? Clowns like Terrell Owens who strut around like turkeys on cocaine after achieving the incredible feat of catching a first-down pass. Tom Jackson slobbering all over Chris Berman as he obligatorily refers to him as “Boomer.” Mark McGwire doing his version of “That depends upon what the meaning of is is” when testifying before Congress. The Mike Tyson soap opera that is almost certain to continue even after he really does fight his last fight. And on and on goes the never-ending wave of B.S.
But it’s the B.S. that we see and hear in our own world that is the most annoying and most difficult to ignore.
For example, I’ve personally had dealings with three people over the years who used the title “Dr.” in front of their names, yet none of them ever graduated from college. In fact, two of them never even attended college! One died at the age of 85 before the general public discovered that the doctorate he had carried through life was nothing more than B.S.
Another was found out only as a result of his multimillion-dollar company’s bankruptcy. Amazingly, he was never even indicted, let alone convicted. Apparently numbed by a lifetime of dealing with B.S., the judge in his bankruptcy case, his creditors, and the prosecuting attorney in his city seemed perfectly willing to just dismiss his fraudulent title as “business as usual.”
The third “Dr.,” however, wins the prize. After nearly 40 years, not only is he still “practicing,” but he is esteemed as a world-renowned psychologist. Incredible as it may sound, from time to time he still appears on radio and television shows to offer his “expert” opinion on psychological matters.
The reason I know for a fact that this charlatan has never received a degree in psychology is because many years ago I had a business reason for having him checked out thoroughly. The report that came back was pretty ugly. A short summary of it was that his doctorate degree, his reputation for being on the cutting edge of great breakthroughs in the field of psychology, and his fame were all pure, unadulterated B.S.
And, of course, there’s the mundane, day-in-and-day-out B.S. that everyone has to put up with. Airport security personnel who take 15 minutes to search an 80-year-old woman’s purse, apparently believing that she fits the classic profile of a terrorist. Or six kids behind an ice cream counter, gabbing with each other while ignoring a line of 25 customers who are growing increasingly irate. Or the voice mail options that large companies put you through when all you want is a quick answer to a quick question.
Then there’s the business world, where B.S. runs rampant. I hear enough B.S. from people I come in contact with every week to last a lifetime. Most of the people you deal with promise short and deliver long. They overstate their figures. They spin the facts.
And perhaps the biggest B.S. of all: the guy who finally gets around to calling you back three weeks (or months!) after you left two messages for him, and opens by saying, “I apologize for not returning your call sooner, but I’ve been up to my ears in work.” He’s so mesmerized by his own B.S. that he doesn’t realize his words are an insult to you. Why? Because they imply that he assumes you aren’t busy, and that you have nothing better to do than lounge around and wait for his call.
So the question is, how do we protect ourselves from drowning in the tsunami of B.S. that relentlessly comes at us each day?
The first and most important way is to make a sincere and ongoing effort to curb your own B.S. Knowingly or unknowingly, we’re all guilty of slinging a bit of B.S. at times, but that doesn’t mean you have to make a religion out of it.
Second, do your best to steer clear of those who demonstrate that they have mastered the art of B.S. Pay more attention to what people do and less attention to what they say.
Sycophants, in particular, are people who excel at B.S. Simple observation makes it fairly easy to discover that there is often a wide disparity between a sycophant’s flowery words and his anemic follow-through.
Above all, learn to translate. In Hollywood, people love to say things like, “Let’s do lunch.” Which usually means, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”
Or the seller who tells a real estate broker, “Trust me. I’ll take care of you.” If you’ve read my book To Be or Not to Be Intimidated?, you know all about this one.
Or Legalman’s assuring you, “I’m not one of those deal-killing attorneys, so you can relax.” To borrow from Mario Puzo, this is your cue to go in with a gun and a mask to make sure you get what’s coming to you.
Finally, of course, there’s the B.S. line that has become part of the lexicon of the comedic world: “The check is in the mail.” All too often this means, “I’m going to mail your check today.” Worse, it may just be the person’s way of saying, “Get lost.”
Above all, if you really want to protect yourself from the ravaging effects of the B.S. tsunami that perpetually threatens to drown you, don’t be naive. Specifically, depend on no one – and on no one particular deal. The best way to accomplish this is to strive to become as independent as possible.
Recognize that the best answer to your problems is in the mirror. Which means that you have to generate the boldness to take matters into your own hands and not expect anything of anyone. And that will only happen if you refuse to allow the guy in the mirror to B.S. you.
One last word of caution: As you walk away from your mirror, be very careful not to accidentally step in anything.