As soon as you hear someone saying “Let’s be clear about this…”, you can be sure that being clear is the very last thing they will do. This rule of thumb proved true in a recent radio appearance by prominent Leave campaigner and politician Priti Patel when she uttered a version of the phrase ten times in the space of a few minutes on the BBC’s Today program. She was duly accused of being “Priti vacant”.
Unfortunately Patel’s performance is just one instance of the bullshit that has characterized so much debate about the EU referendum. The following day on the same radio program, George Osborne also fell back onto empty rhetoric to defend the case for remain. These included “let’s be clear”, “multi-pronged attack”, and of course his favourites—“long-term economic plan”.
As the economist Tim Harford has made clear, both sides are guilty of spreading bullshit. The Vote Leave claim that the EU costs Britain £350 million a week has been shown to be overinflated. Equally, claims from the remain camp that three million jobs would be lost if Britain pulled the plug on the EU are the product of magical thinking.
At the height of George W. Bush’s reign as president of the United States, a Princeton philosopher called Harry Frankfurt published a short pamphlet called “On Bullshit”. Originally an academic paper which appeared in a philosophy journal two decades earlier, this short missive got at the essence of BS.
According to Frankfurt, bullshit is not the same thing as a lie. A lie conceals the truth. Bullshit, in contrast, speaks without regard for the truth. While numbers like £350 million a week might be lies that conceal the actual cost to Britain of the EU (which is less than half that figure), phrases like “let’s be clear about this…” are most certainly bullshit. These are phrases which have absolutely no relationship to anything. And if you go through almost any speech given during the EU referendum campaign, you will find liberal doses of such bullshit.
As the date of the referendum nears, we are likely to find ourselves drowning in this Brexshit. For those of us who might want to sort the facts from the falsehood and phooey, there is a growing field of bullshit studies to provide some useful pointers.
The first marker of bullshit is that it has no relationship to the truth. This means there is no clear reference point in actual reality it can be tested against. Empty words which were liberally used in Patel’s speech like “let’s be clear”, “options and choices”, “moving forward” and “the reality is” are all class A bullshit. They refer to nothing. You can’t check them out against the facts.
Another clear sign of bullshit is that it does not appeal to logic. Instead of moving logically through a series of reasonable steps, the bullshitter prefers to randomly draw together empty phrases in a seemingly random order.
Phrases like “As we move forward, the reality is we will be clear about our options and choices” stand out. It sounds great. Who doesn’t want to move forward, face reality, be clear and have options and choices? The only problem is the phrase means absolutely nothing. When faced with a suspect phrase, ask: what exactly does this mean? If you can’t answer that, you’re probably dealing with BS.
A final red flag is that bullshit misleads us. Unlike a liar, the bullshitter does not cover up the truth with a false statement. Instead, they direct our attention away from the truth—often to their own advantage. When questioned for specifics in her interview, Patel relied on the time honoured political strategy of distracting the audience with something else—in this case a barrage of empty phrases. The advantage for the bullshitter is you don’t need to lie, but nor do you need to actually address the truth. All you need to do is be quick with a cliche.
There is nothing unusual about the profusion of bullshit in the debate about the EU. It is common in many other aspects of politics, such as discussion about the deficit, cultural policy and much talk about globalization. Bullshit is also a constant feature of most workplaces. In these settings, it may seem empty, but it can have disastrous consequences. It detracts people from facts, reasoned debate and crucial realities.
But more importantly it undermines our faith in political deliberation. People start to think: “It’s all bullshit anyway, so I may as well pick the one which sounds the nicest.” As I point out in my book co-authored with Mats Alvesson, The Stupidity Paradox, this creates a situation where other smart people don’t fully use their intellect.
Fighting bullshit can often seem impossible. People often speak about “drowning in it”. Asking for reasoned arguments and facts is unlikely to stop the bullshit in their tracks. In fact it often just makes matters worse.
What may have an impact on bullshit though is humor. So my modest proposal is to construct a set of your own Brexshit bingo cards. Inspired by bullshit bingo, a game commonly played in corporations, you simply come up with a list of meaningless words used in the EU referendum debate. Hand out the cards before a speech. The first person to tick off all the words calls Brexshit and then wins a prize.