Is hiding a truth a lie?


"Lies press," shout the Pegida demonstrators. The authors of the feature pages write about a "post-factual age" and "alternative facts". And both mean the same thing, just the other way around: the other side bends and warps the truth, and they themselves have to defend the truth. Everyone thinks they know what is going on, instructive forefingers are raised on all sides. The truth has seldom been so controversial. Seldom has she had so many advocates and yet seemed so threatened. Some of their would-be rescuers see salvation in the fact check, others want to regulate social media.

The current crisis of truth will not be so easy to resolve. In order to create clarity in such a situation, it is advisable to start from the beginning, with the basic things, such as the question of the right terms to describe and understand the situation. This is a question for philosophers, because clarifying and sharpening terms are one of their core competencies. For more than two millennia they have been concerned with the essence of truth. [1] They think about truth and morality, set up theories of truth, define truth predicates and truth conditions. Until a few years ago, the value of the truth was beyond dispute. Whoever knew her had power and knowledge. This connection is apparently disappearing. Today, he who creates opinion and mood has power.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt coined a key term for understanding this development in the 1980s: bullshit. [2] Of course, Frankfurt did not invent the word "bullshit", but he sharpened the expletive expression to a philosophical technical term. Bullshit is talk that the speaker doesn't care if it's true. In contrast to liars, bullshitters do not try to deliberately convince others to be untruthful. True or false, they don't care. You want to make an impression. Bullshit can be harmless and even entertaining, but in large quantities it is harmful and should be exposed. The extent and variety of bullshit seem immeasurable. Probably never before has so much bullshit been produced as it is today.

If it is true that humanity is about to enter an era of bullshit, it would be a tragedy. From the Socratic philosophers to the medieval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas, the thinkers of the Renaissance like Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci, the scientific pioneers of the Royal Society in London to the great philosophers and naturalists of the Enlightenment, above all Immanuel Kant an effort over the millennia to bring truth to justice. Should all these efforts have been in vain? Will the nonsense win in the end? Will the Enlightenment one day be just a footnote in European cultural history? A brief warming of the mind between two ice ages?

Impressive arbitrariness

Bullshit is not expressed with the intention of explaining anything. It should not inform its addressees, but rather awaken impressions in them. Bullshit is an affront to the addressees, who usually listen to learn something and not to be gossiped about. But the damage done is even greater: the bullshitter undermines the foundations of civilized communication. Understanding between people only works if they - at least mostly - strive for the truth about the world in which we live. If we kept talking bullshit, the meaning of the words and phrases we speak would be eroded.

For example, if we no longer care whether what we call "green" is really green, the adjective "green" would no longer mean anything. It could name green things, and red and colorless things - all things. A single person who still attached importance to the correct use of the attribute "green" would be lost in general arbitrariness. Bullshit is therefore contagious, it is not only meaningless in itself, but also robs statements that would actually make sense of their expressiveness.

Suspicion of bullshit arises, for example, when there is talk of "criminal prosecution precautions". This expression belongs to the genre of "defense against danger" and has established itself in recent years not only in the language of politicians, but also in the German language of lawyers. Nobody can have anything against that: ward off dangers, prevent criminal offenses before they are committed; against some of the measures behind these terms, however: it is about video surveillance, the collection of connection, movement and biometric data - i.e. measures that also interfere with the fundamental rights of innocent citizens without having been proven that they actually prevent crime.

The amount of such one-word bullshit is so overwhelming that only three other examples are listed here: "Verfassungsschutz" as a designation for a state organization which, to protect the constitution, apparently over and over again the rights to privacy guaranteed by the constitution Distance communication and the integrity of one's own home; "Excellence Initiative" as the name for the plan born out of necessity to give preference to a few when distributing the tight budget for universities because it is not enough for all; "Biofuel" as the name for conventional gasoline, to which a small proportion of vegetable fuel, mostly from non-organic cultivation, has been added.

Lack of truthfulness

Bullshitters, as Frankfurt understands them, present themselves as conveyors of the truth, although that is precisely what they do not want. Rather, they are by nature blenders who want to influence the attitudes of those to whom they speak with their speech. Bullshit arises from a lack of truthfulness. A factually incorrect statement is not just bullshit, but can be error, lie or bullshit, depending on the level of knowledge and intent of the speaker: Anyone who believes they are telling the truth but is wrong is wrong. Anyone who specifically and consciously tells the wrong thing to their counterpart is lying. Anyone who doesn't care whether what they say is true or not and just wants to make an impression and create a good mood is talking bullshit. A lax attitude towards correspondence between the world and what is said, where care would be taken, produces bullshit.

Bullshit is usually less socially sanctioned than lies. You are more likely to be belibed than to be deceived. Anyone who discovers that they are being lied to becomes angry and feels betrayed. To fall under suspicion of lying is the horror of every politician. Politicians, on the other hand, are often allowed to talk bullshit with impunity. In fact, they are widely expected to thrash phrases and avoid questions. Bullshit is part of the repertoire of political communication

From a philosophical point of view, however, the leniency towards bullshit is questionable. A liar cares about the truth. He takes them seriously, that's why he wants to hide them. Part of lying is knowing the truth well. Often a liar has to know the truth better than someone who utters it, because a liar has to fit his lie into the truth and ensure that it corresponds to the worldview of his counterpart so that he can accept the lie as the truth. A bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn't care about the truth and just suffocates it with his talk. He doesn't care about the world or his image of it. He wants to get his agenda through.

"The liar and the truthful play the same game on different sides," says Harry Frankfurt. "The bullshitter plays a completely different game. He's neither for the truth nor against it, he doesn't care about it." Frankfurt considers bullshit to be an even greater threat to our civilization than lying. "It is important for us to respect the truth. The liar does not undermine our respect for the truth, but our knowledge of it. This is bad, but it distinguishes him from the bullshitter who undermines our respect for the truth." ] In this way, bullshit undermines the value of truthfulness more profoundly than lies.