Bullshit’s Shadow

To avoid confusion, I will start with my own definition of bullshit: whenever I exert energy into efforts which are primarily meant to make others—and sometimes also myself—believe that I have something of value to contribute, or into efforts to shift attention away from my true motives, and a truthful disclosure of what I can contribute or what my true intentions are would reveal a discrepancy, then I am bullshitting. So, to be clear, I think of bullshit as closely related to lying. The difference is one of degree, wherein bullshitting is not so much an outright lie, and rather a form of colorful embellishment or hyperbole or maybe verbal stage magic.

This behavior can take many different forms. Some are relatively benign, like when there is a genuine opportunity of learning a skill after I declare being able to deliver something—so long as I can pull it off that is. On average, however, I believe it comes at a cost: diminished trust in what people disclose about what they can offer and what their intentions are. And together with this loss of trust also comes a belief that bullshitting is acceptable rather than a form of lying.

So why do I bullshit in the first place? My intuition is that, as a habit, it comes somewhat naturally to me, as it does to other humans. I am not saying this as an excuse! I simply believe that selection pressures in the past have led humans to unconsciously allocate our (mental) resources into two broad categories: acquiring skills and other valuable properties, and the pretense of having acquired those skills and properties, a kind of meta-skill. That is, for instance, where the “fake it til you make it” slogan seems to come from. And whenever humans are exposed to conditions that reward the presentation or pretense of skills equally as if not more than the actual skills being presented, bullshitting can become rampant.

To repeat, I do not wish that to be understood as an excuse or justification. The fact that circumstances outside my control create an incentive structure in which bullshitting becomes rewarded or at least not punished only means that in the absence of my conscious choice, I myself and other people might fall more easily into the habit of being less truthful than we could be. That brings me to this question:

How does the Shadow fit into this? Truly defining this term is beyond what I can offer… From my perspective, one key aspect of this concept is that whenever I do not like something in my own behavior or the norms in my environment, I easily have a tendency of projecting this dislike onto others who I see as showing this quality or behavior. And this can sometimes come out as accusations paired with a lot of anger.

During an online course I am taking at the moment, we recently had a session that was centered around Shadow Play. In this session, it once again became clear that these kinds of projections are frequently a form of self-defense. I may feel ashamed or weak underneath all the bullshitting I do, and so whenever I see someone else doing it, I respond particularly strongly. So long as I am not honest with myself about where my signaling is not truthful, it is almost impossible to get a handle on it. The Shadow—a form of unconscious self-protective agent—prevents me from acknowledging my poor behavior.

I intuitively sense that one of the reasons our society is currently so deeply engaged in tribal warfare is the following dynamic:

  • the world is far more complex than we can possibly handle
  • there are clear demands in our environment telling us that we are supposed to have informed opinions
  • we run with relatively uninformed and ideologically matching opinions that we then need to defend to cover up our lack of actual knowledge together with the fact that we were not entirely truthful to begin with
  • when we see others doing something we think of as similar, we project onto those others our own shame and presumed weakness in the form of accusations and anger, rather than being open to the possibility that they know something we don’t

In other words, our lack of true understanding of reality paired with the overall increased acceptability of bullshitting as an “OK habit” leads us down a path of throwing ever more ideological but empty phrases around. And our anger—which in part is a projection of our felt weakness—aims at other people. This dynamic prevents us from ever having an honest and productive dialog.

Where and how to start changing this? In other words: how does this matter? Well, I feel that I have to start with myself. If I can transform my own thinking in a direction where I recognize the emptiness behind quite a few of the things I say—especially when what I say is accompanied by feelings of anger, hostility, or self-defense—then I believe I can start to really listen to others. And then I can learn something even from bullshit. At the very least I may consider that the person who is bullshitting may feel vulnerable, and I can try to look at their use of bullshit as a form of self-protection.

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