Bullshit [bool-shit] noun, verb: foolish, insolent talk
There’s a lot of it in the world and that isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing; it just is. In any case, figuring out how to avoid it doesn’t have to be complicated or stressful—it can usually be dealt with by asking yourself two important questions.
We’ll get to that in a minute. First, a little history…
The Origins of Bullshit
In the beginning, the earth was sparsely populated. Men and women roamed free in their family-sized tribes, rarely coming in contact with others. Life was difficult then, but when survival and procreation were the loftiest goals, there wasn’t time or space for shenanigans. Everyone in the family had a role to fulfill, and those duties would be performed from sunup to sundown.
As we moved up the primordial food chain and secured our safety and security from the beasts, family size began to grow, and families started to organize themselves into tribes and clans. During this period, we showed our earliest signs of specialization—giving individuals a unique advantage of knowledge and skill over others—by relying on the tribe to provide for their other needs.
This period is widely regarded as the birth place of bullshit.
At first, bullshit was harmless—a game of wits played among friends during their brief leisure time. As one friend would try to trick another, the victim would ask, “Are you bullshittin’ me?” It was, of course, a rhetorical question. At this stage of human development, no one would attempt to pass off bullshit as truth because the repercussions were too severe. Excommunication from the tribe likely meant death for someone ill equipped to survive without the support of the family.
But as we continued to succeed as a species, our population multiplied rapidly forcing once tight-knit tribes to split into separate factions to maintain order and familiarity. Today, we know this phenomenon as “Dunbar’s Law,” but at the time it was popularly referred to as the “What’s your name, again?” plague.
Neighboring clans began to exist closer and closer to each other and even begin to trade goods and services. Before long, clans themselves began to specialize and things like “industries” and “economies” were born as cities—ubiquitous masses of unfamiliar people—developed.
With the knowledge gap between specialties growing ever distant at the same time as access to unfamiliar people grew larger and larger, the ability to trick strangers with minor consequences grew. Many historians regard this period of time as the age when “bullshit turned bad.”
No longer were games of bullshit played only for fun between friends.
Bullshit in Modern Times
Today, bullshit is a ubiquitous part of society. The amount created and transmitted each day is so tremendous that it’s no longer considered a special event to encounter it; it’s more or less a part of every day life. The number of specialized tasks that we now rely on others to perform for us combined with an inflating population has bred a nearly infinite number of possibilities for malicious bullshitters to take advantage of us.
While harmless games of bullshit are still commonplace among friends, normally during large gatherings and over alcohol, malicious bullshit that preys on our lack of specific knowledge now permeates almost every part of our lives. This has been a wholly natural progression that’s developed not from the will of shysters and cons to use on us, but instead by our own desire to receive it.
In the modern world, we’ve developed a taste for unbelievable stories and hype. Sensation, no matter how true or false, draws our attention. And in a world of information overload, what doesn’t get hyped, often doesn’t get noticed.
To put it plainly, we like to be bullshitted. But we dislike the after-effect. We like to be bullshitted much in the way we enjoy alcohol, but not the hangover or the way we crave sex, but not the potential consequences.
And we’re even very good at identifying bullshit, yet usually very bad at resisting it.
There’s an evolutionary explanation for this. The most successful among us are typically people who took a chance on something that, at the time, seemed foolish. They possessed the foresight or, at the very least, the dumb luck to try something unpopular and benefited greatly because of it. True risk-takers.
This is something all of us want. We want to be the one who bucks the trend and shows the world what’s possible with our brilliant/courageous/funny/[insert desirable adjective] actions. And this a good thing. This is how great discoveries happen. It’s also why we’re easily duped.
Take, for instance, my freshman year in college when two attractive girls came to my dorm room and invited me to a party just before offering me a great deal on my favorite magazine subscriptions—cash only.
Party with two girls and all my favorite magazines for $30? Sign me up! As you already know, there was no party and there were definitely no magazines. I had been on the receiving end of a massive pile of bullshit. The worse part is that I knew it the whole time. I agreed to the phony deal because I could afford it and it would’ve been a great story if it had been true.
You can’t be a cynic all the time, and you shouldn’t try to be either. If you write off everything as bullshit, you’ll surely miss out on many no-bullshit opportunities. But opening yourself up to bullshit, taking that leap, that risk, is like opening Pandora’s box.
How do you protect yourself from bullshitters? The answer, I think, is not so difficult.
The Two Pillars of Bullshit Defense
Combating the malicious bullshit in your life needn’t be all that complicated—it can be done in two steps—but before you can fix something, you have to identify the problem.
Since bullshit is so prolific in today’s age, it can hit you from almost any angle, so being ready for anything is the best strategy, but that’s impossible. Instead, a more realistic and decidedly less bullshit way to approach it is to attack the areas where bullshit is most likely to disrupt your life.
Here are a few examples that apply to most people. You may have more or less depending on how naturally bullshit resistant you are:
- Marketing and advertising: The average person sees 4,000 – 10,000 advertisements per day, and money is a potent corrupter. Bullshit is rampant in financial transactions.
- Relationships and dating: Depending on how and where you court your partners, bullshit can be highly concentrated in this facet of life, especially during the early stages.
- News and politics: Due to our own appetite for sensation, the flow of bullshit runs very deep in this sector of society.
- Higher education: For all the good it does in teaching us to think critically, the higher education system has a seething underbelly of bullshit created by very intelligent people more concerned with prestige than truth.
- Work: Once you’ve been around awhile, the bullshit becomes mostly benign, but during the hiring and firing process, the amount of bullshit transacted by both employers and employees can be quite impressive.
- Social Media: This is the new frontier of the Internet, and wherever there’s unsettled territory, there’s both great opportunity and immense bullshit.
With a good understanding of where bullshit tends to concentrate itself in your life, you can attack and defend against it with less effort. As the saying goes, “Take care of the big problems, and the little ones will take care of themselves.”
My own two-step solution to addressing bullshit when it rears its ugly head is simple:
I try to unveil it. I ask myself questions like, “What’s the likelihood that this is total bullshit?” or “Is this an area of my life where bullshit tends to concentrate?” Remember, we’re remarkably good at identifying bullshit, but remarkably terrible at defending ourselves from it.
Side note: Be very careful not to tune your bullshit sensor too sharply. This has the side effect of turning you into a full-time cynic, and that’s no way to go through life.
If I do identify bullshit, though, then my second step is to decide how severely to react to it.
Do I accept or ignore it? Bullshit is an integral part of life and, when experienced intentionally, can even be fun and exhilarating. If this is the benign strand of the bullshit virus and going along with it could be entertaining, why sweat it? If it’s not harming anyone else, why ruin a good time?
Do I attack it with truth? When malicious bullshit enters my life, I stand up to it and beat it down with as much truth and integrity as I can muster. If it’s malicious bullshit that won’t harm others, I may also choose to avoid it. Getting this part right is critical. Attacking bullshit with more bullshit does not cancel the equation; it multiplies it. When I let malicious bullshit in my life go unchecked, it severely limits my ability to enjoy friendly bullshit in the future.
Whichever decision you make, it’s good to remember that, as long as you want to participate in life, bullshit cannot be entirely avoided. The best decision for what to do in a bullshit-prone environment will depend on how important the outcome is for you and your ability to afford disappointment both financially and emotionally.
When it comes to bullshit, you can get ahead by playing the odds. Perhaps a few bullshit-spotting examples are in order.
Examples of Pure, Unfiltered Bullshit
Let’s say you see something on the news that leaves you feeling sad, angry, lonesome, or numb (this should not be unfamiliar to anyone). There’s a high likelihood that the report being made contains factual information, but is presented via a stream of veritable bullshit.
If you think that being an informed citizen is an important quality, then your best response is to seek out the same facts from another media source, or even several others. In this case, you’ll have to accept the fact that the bullshit will be amplified as you add more sources to the equation, but in this multiplication is the opportunity to find the factual bits that multiply along with it. From there, you’re free to reach your own conclusion.
If you’ve been on the Internet for more than 3 months, you have—at some point in time—run into a website with a giant red headline telling you there’s an untapped secret to making $10 million selling Furby dolls on eBay and all you have to do is pay $97 for a special report that tells you how. That’s a dead bullshit giveaway for almost anyone, but let’s all admit we’ve seen some similar bullshit that made us at least look twice out of curiosity.
Now, I don’t doubt for one second that there is, in fact, a way to make $10 million selling Furby dolls, and I’d even give the author the benefit of the doubt that they did it. The real giveaway is in looking at the success stories of anyone else that’s made $10 million dollars and asking if their path to riches really was “easy” or if they bought their wealth from a $97 ebook.
There are plenty of great business resources worth paying for, but none I’ve ever come across promised something earth shattering for an unbelievable price. Instead, they promised a good value and an honest return policy. Kind of boring, actually, but no bullshit.
I like Twitter. A lot. I like it so much that I spend a lot of time hanging out and interacting with people on it. For me, it’s a great place to chat with friends and get feedback on my articles. For others, it’s a great place to vomit bullshit about how to get more followers to “boost your business.” These folks look convincing because they do in fact have lots and lots of twitter followers.
If you look under the hood, though, it’s easy to spot the house of cards. When you look to see who’s following them, it’s often a list of thousands and thousands of bots (ie. not real people), and their Twitter stream is filled with garbage and links to $10 million Furby cash engine sales pages. I don’t know the last time I had a Twitter bot buy something from me. How about you?
In a case like this, I’m pretty annoyed, but I also understand that the bullshitter has, for the most part, no influence. They aren’t talking to any real people. So I ignore it and go about my day.
One Man’s Bullshit…
I sincerely hope this brief guide has given you some tools to use for detecting and dealing with all of modern day’s bullshit. That’s the honest to God, no bullshit truth.
Please remember, though, that one man’s gospel is another man’s bullshit, and perhaps the most difficult hurdle in this whole game is coming to terms with the fact that bullshit is a subjective matter. What you believe in may sound like bullshit to another, and someone else’s great idea may sound to you like bullshit to you.
I think I have a good method for dealing with it, but that’s really for you to decide because sometimes the most dangerous bullshit there is can be the bullshit we tell ourselves.