It was summer, 1989. I was a sixteen year old standing on the Ford lot completely dazzled by the 1988 Ford Mustang 5.0 sitting hunched down and ready for action. It didn’t take long for the salesman to emerge from the air-conditioned showroom, doing his best to appear to be on an aimless stroll through the lot, yet all the while making a beeline for me. A brief conversation ensued, and while I don’t remember the details of the exchange I’m pretty sure we covered the standard topics of interest for a teenager: horsepower, torque, skidpad, and 1/4 mile times. But even if the rest of the conversation is lost in the fog of memory, I do clearly remember asking this: “Does it come in T-tops?”
Did it make a difference whether it came in T-tops or not? Not really. I was dreaming. But he didn’t know that. For all he knew I could have had a rich dad ready to spoil his son with the muscle car of his choice. So playing it on the safe side, he humored me.
“T-tops? Uh, no. They dropped that option after 86′. But,” he immediately added with a twinkle his eyes, “I just happen to have an 86′ on the lot with T-tops.”
Sure enough. There it was. Unfortunately the 86′ was the last year before the bumper to bumper restyle, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the old bodystyle. So I thanked him, got in my rusty 82′ Celica, and was on my way.
It was later at my house when I was going over the leftover brochure for an 88′ that I saw a little box among the options: T-tops. The salesman was wrong. You could get the redesigned Mustang with T-tops, just like the 87′ 5.0 in this picture. “What’s going on?” I thought indignantly. “Surely he knew that T-tops were still an option.” And with considerable anger I realized that the salesman had lied to me.
But did he really lie? Maybe not. In 2005 Princeton University Press published a little book by analytic philosopher Harry Frankfurt. (The book’s content was an essay which was originally published nineteen years earlier.) The title was admirably clear: On Bullshit. In 2005 On Bullshit was the little academic book that could, for it confounded all expectations by shooting up the bestseller lists. And there was much more to those explosive sales than the novelty of an analytic philosopher using sailor talk.
The real attraction of the book is that it offered a theory of bullshit. It was a theory that distinguished bullshit from lying and argued, ironically enough, that bullshit is actually more corrosive of truth than lies. Not only was the analysis novel and informative but it clearly hit a sore spot. To put it bluntly, our society is full of it. It comes from used car salesmen and politicians and lawyers. But it also comes from less likely sources including, of all things, academics. (More on that in a subsequent post.)
Here’s the interesting thing. I was invited to speak at Princeton Theological Seminary in a few weeks to address the very topic of bullshit and theology (a topic on which, believe it or not, I have published). And in the next week I’m going to spend some time laying out Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit along with that of G.A. Cohen. Along the way I’ll even say a few words about how the academy unwittingly encourages bullshit, particularly in (but certainly not limited to) the humanities. Finally, I’ll note how, in keeping with Frankfurt’s point, bullshit is the supreme enemy of truth.
I usually try to end with a sly one-liner, but unfortunately every possible idea I could come up with indulged in a lowbrow use of our central word. And so instead I’ll end with the rather less effective “And that’s no baloney.”