Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.
In one of the lowest portions of hell, Dante comes across the flatterers. The flatterers are immersed in a large, stinking pile of excrement. They wallow in it, and their bodies are smeared all over by it. The symbolism of the passage is quite clear. Flattery is no better than dung. There is a modern-day term that strongly recalls Dante’s allegory: BULLSH*T.
Recently, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt published a study entitled On Bullsh*t. Frankfurt tries to determine the very nature of bullsh*t, in particular how it differs from lies. He concludes that a liar accepts the truth (but wants to keep you from it), while a bullsh*tter speaks with no consideration of the truth. A lie is based on the truth, albeit negatively. Bullsh*t is language where the distinction between truth and falsity is irrelevant.
During this month, this blog is dealing with the contemporary uses and misuses of language. The previous two entries have dealt with meaningless language; how people use words without consideration to their meanings, and worse, how people refer to entire texts without consideration of their messages. Both entries are dealing with essentially the same phenomenon. In a word, it’s bullsh*t.
To use examples from the earlier entries, a bank promoted itself as “extreme banking,” and Nike used the Beatles’ “Revolution” in its advertisement. “Extreme” means nothing in relationship to banking, and the Beatles’ song has nothing to do with shoes. These are all different from basic errors in grammar. In common speech and emails to friends, everybody makes mistakes. But in multi-million dollar ad campaigns, every word and image is picked over. Someone somewhere chose to make all those statements, regardless if they reflected the truth or not.
Frankfurter’s analysis is insightful, but he omits one important point, the bullsh*tter’s motivation. There is always an ulterior motive. This is where Dante’s Inferno is quite helpful. One of the flatterers in Dante’s hell is a character from classical literature, the prostitute Thais. Dante recalls her false praise of her customer’s sexual prowess. Of course, he wasn’t really good in bed, but she wanted to ensure his repeat business. Sound familiar? Just like flatterers, people bullsh*t to get something from the listener. The hype in today’s advertising is no different from Thais’ flattery.
Sometimes bullsh*tters want to impress you by making themselves look better; or sometimes they want to make someone else look worse. These are the most common examples of bullsh*t in political discourse. After the US House of Representatives approved President Obama’s healthcare reform, those opposed rallied on the Capitol’s steps. Someone had erected a sign with a photograph of the bodies at Dachau under the caption “Socialized Medicine.” So… by extending coverage to all Americans, which would save lives, the law is somehow like the extermination of millions of human beings?