There is a certain kind of stupid mistake that only smart people make, and that is to assume that a sober set of facts can step into the ring with an easy, comforting lie and win. We have entered a new moment in public and political conversation, a moment which many pundits have dubbed the “post truth” age. I prefer to think of it as the age of bullshit.
Consider, if you can bear to, the phenomenon that is Katie Hopkins. Hopkins is one of Britain’s best bullshit artists. This week the former Apprentice contestant and professional provocateur was back in the news for proclaiming on her popular LBC radio show that the word “racism” had lost all meaning, which is not at all true, but feels to a great many people like it ought to be true, and that’s what matters. Hopkins got what she wanted. What she personally feels about racism — or indeed about people who are neither white nor Christian — is of no consequence. The game is what matters to her.
I’ve no idea whether Hopkins is a racist at heart, and it doesn’t matter, because like so many attention grifters, she makes a living saying and doing outrageous things that can have real consequences for real people. In December 2016, she was forced to apologise for falsely accusing the Mahmood family, who were stopped from visiting Disneyland by US authorities, of extremist links in a column for Mail Online. The Mail was forced to pay out £150,000 in damages to the family and Hopkins tweeted the published apology from her own account.
What is bullshit, and how is it different from lies? According to the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt the key difference between the liar and the bullshit artist is that the liar has at least some regard for the truth. The liar has a clear idea of what the reality of a situation is, and wants their audience to believe the opposite. The bullshit artist doesn’t care about truth at all — they have renounced citizenship of what the Bush administration infamously called “the reality-based community.” The liar wishes to conceal the truth. The bullshit artist, by contrast, wants to destroy the entire concept of truth, not to deceive but to confuse, confound and control.
This is what people mean when they refer to our political moment as a “post truth” age. It is not quite the same as lies, though lying may well be involved. “Post-truth” is closer to bullshit. It’s the “Hall of Mirrors” strategy perfected in Putin’s Russia, where an explosion of fake news and cultured online trolling bolsters the regime not simply by pumping out pro-Kremlin propaganda, but by making it impossible for citizens to entirely trust anything they read or hear. This leaves them vulnerable to latching on to the ideas that simply feel as if they ought to be true, with no regard for objective fact, which has been devalued, along with the very concept of expertise and learning, across the world.
Bullshit is not simply a set of fibs, but an entire register of speaking. Bullshit is the language of business, which is increasingly the language of politics, but in business everyone knows the game. Everyone sitting around a boardroom table knows that everyone else is playing a game, trying to get away with as much as possible, and that makes the game fair, in its way. In politics, people don’t know they’re playing, and if you’re involved in a game you don’t know you’re playing, chances are you’re the ball.
The very word “bullshit” is uncomfortable. It’s crass, nasty and awkwardly American, all of which is appropriate. It also suggests an artlessness, a malodorous dumping of useless principle, but as Frankfurt points out, just because it’s bullshit doesn’t mean it’s not thought through. On the contrary: what makes some bullshit artists so successful, from salespeople and PR merchants to demagogues and doomsday cult leaders, is their ability to shape their rhetoric exactly to the outer edge of what is socially acceptable, and then reshape it as that edge moves further right. Hopkins has learned her lesson, but it’s not the one she was supposed to learn. Bullshit artists are trolls gone pro, and are infinitely more dangerous than your average racist.
Bullshit artists are far more threatening than true believers, because they are more adaptable. They will say whatever is necessary to win whatever it is they want, be it power, cash, attention or all three. They also have far less to lose. A high-stakes liar might risk everything if he or she is found out, but the bullshit artist simply moves on to the next sticky idea that floats through the howling moral vacuum behind their eyes.
Katie Hopkins is a bullshit artist. Donald Trump is a bullshit artist. Nigel Farage is a bullshit artist. These people are the faces of the age of bullshit, an age that defies any charge of hypocrisy, because the con is open and shameless. That’s why Farage can win a referendum by appealing to the “ordinary working man” and congratulate himself with a glitzy reception at the Ritz.
The thing about bullshit, as the term itself suggests, is that it’s grotesque, and a little embarrassing. There’s a certain hygiene to lies, in part because they’re far harder to get away with. Bullshit, however, is a contaminant. It sticks to everything, suffusing culture with a paranoid miasma of ill health. There is less shame in being taken in by an outright lie.
Bullshit is hard to parse, but we must all get better at sniffing it out. The last, best trick in the bullshit artist’s reeking pocket is projection: to declare that the whole system is bankrupt, that they are simply making a rotten living in a rotten world. This would be the moment to echo the wisdom of children, who are uniquely difficult to con, who can sniff weaponised insincerity across a crowded playground. In the age of bullshit and rotten politics, it is often the case that he who smelt it, dealt it.