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Bullshit Literacy: 2019 update

(The bullshitter) 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.

However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.

Harry G. Frankfurt, 
On Bullshit*

I first outlined my Bullshit** Literacy Competencies back in 2005. Little did I know that they would be even more relevant nearly 15 years later. I've revisited them a couple other times (2009, 2013), hoping that McGraw-Hill or Betsy DeVos might pick up on them and make me a purchase offer. No such luck.

Bullshit by politicians of all stripes, businesses, and even charitable organizations is rampant. It is only by knowing the techniques of the successful bullshitter that one can detect it in others. Bullshit literacy is more important now in 2019 than ever before, especially given the communication venues now available to the ordinary bullshitter on the street. 

The Bullshit Literate Student will (2019):

  1. Show no social conscience or balance when deliberately distorting factoids, data, or expert opinion in presenting a conclusion.
  2. Skillfully use any medium and all persuasive techniques in order to convince others. This includes the ability to use technology to doctor images and edit published text. (See deepfake)
  3. Consistently, vociferously, and blindly hold to a single point of view, and know that volume, repetition, and rhetoric trump reason.
  4. Use purposely emotion-laded words so as not to let reason possibly interfere with judgement.
  5. Convincingly fake sincerity and deliver any message with a straight face.
  6. Ably disguise personal gain as public good.
  7. Take a single incident or news story and follow it to an illogical conclusion.
  8. Claim any idea as original.
  9. Deny prior knowledge.
  10. Create a website, wiki, blog, Tweet, Facebook post, or podcast. (beginning level). Find a publisher, broadcaster or corporate sponsor for whom the bottom line is the bottom line. (advanced).
  11. Never, never, never show doubt.
  12. Take no responsibility for consequences that may occur down the road.
  13. Use any extreme of any financial projection or estimate.
  14. Let the retention of power or position be the deciding factor in all decisions. Doing what's right is for wimps and suckers.
  15. Offer apologies in such a way that the wrong-doer looks morally superior.
  16. Use name-calling and initiate or spread rumors about those with whom you may disagree.

Other skills the Bullshit Literate need to master?

I would advocate for competency-based evaluation of these important skills, perferably a real-life project in which one could bullshit others to make the home, the school, or the community a better place - for oneself. (See Art Wolinsky's assessment rubric here.)


* I lost my original copy of this book (published in 2005) and in searching for a replacement was astounded by the number of books that now include the word "bullshit" in their titles. While I would like to assert it was my blog post that gave rise to the popularity of the term, I suspect others might call that BS.

** For those of you with scatological avoidance issues, BS Lit. I like Bullshit Lit because it rhymes. I have purposely retained the term bullshit in this set of competencies, acknowledging that it will offend some readers and limit the distribution of this important skill set. However, I cannot think of another, less objectionable term that describes the act of bullshitting, a person who is a bullshitter, or a communication that is bullshit. (No, baloney and crap do not have the gravitas. Writing "BS," "bullsh*t," or just "bull" is disingenuous since the full term pops into the reader's head anyway and simply makes them feel guilty about knowing such words.

I try to use expletives or scatological references only sparingly and purposefully. But in adult conversation they are sometimes necessary, even vital. And during times of stress or excitement, unavoidable.




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Reader Comments (2)

And the simple-minded believers are oblivious to the stench...😢 Timely revisit.

June 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMissi Baker

Or actually like the smell,,,

Thanks for the comment.


June 25, 2019 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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