“But bullshit is funny sometimes!” my philosophy professor once said. “No, it’s not,” I retorted.
I’ve written a lot about how morally reprehensible bullshit is, but over the years, I’ve come to think that my professor is right: bullshit is occasionally funny. In fact, it is even occasionally good. Bullshit–such as the poo pourri spray that I gifted the professor–might make one chuckle. A so-called bull session allows people to share half-baked ideas that might ultimately lead to better ideas. Some species of bullshit are conducive to the pursuit of truth. In other cases, bullshit can save lives.
I like to think of this type of bullshit as fertilizer. Applying too much fertilizer will kill your plants. So, you need only a little bit of fertilizer to facilitate the flourishing of flora. Analogously, you need only a bit of bullshit to elicit good ideas, find some truth, make someone laugh, or save lives. But producing too much bullshit will only backfire–ideas become muddy, the boundary between truth and falsehood blurs, people do not laugh, and people die.
I’ve identified five types of beneficial bullshit whose dosage should be small and judiciously determined. They are:
- Brainstorming Bullshit
- Writing or typing non-stop to overcome writer’s block
- Thinking out loud alone or with others or participating in a bull session
- Noodling on or experimenting with your musical instrument
- Partially True or Inspiring Bullshit
- Discovering a true or inspiring piece of information from an essay or question in which a student bullshitted
- Identifying a logical fallacy in a joke that relies on logic to be funny
- Horsing Around Bullshit
- Giving a friend a bullshit gift
- Responding to bullshit with bullshit
- Writing mediocre satire or literature in your personal blog for fun or for therapeutic reasons
- Confidence-Boosting Bullshit
- Practicing speaking non-stop on the independent speaking portion of the TOEFL
- Talking to yourself in the mirror before making an important speech
- Making small talk with strangers to overcome social phobia
- Dealing-with-Emergencies Bullshit
- Surviving a kidnapping
- Communicating with a suicidal and psychotic individual
- Saving someone’s life
I’ll elaborate on each of these species of bullshit in the following section.
Beneficial Bullshit in Trace Amounts
(1) Brainstorming Bullshit
Example 1: Writing or typing non-stop to overcome writer’s block
Ever stared at a blank computer screen and wondered what to write? Typing whatever comes to mind is most likely to produce bullshit (or at best a half-assed version of stream-of-consciousness literature), but doing so is often more productive than continuing to stare blankly. The shitty stuff you furiously type might spawn new ideas–a plot, a character, a logical argument, a movie script, etc. The caveat is to not overdo this type of bullshit, of course, because you’ll just end up trying in vain to find the proverbial needle in a pile of steaming shit and end up with a bullshit paper.
Example 2: Thinking out loud alone or with others or participating in a bull session
When I discussed the problem of bullshit with my professor more than a decade ago, I wondered aloud whether there are instances in which bullshit is good. The only example I could come up with is one written by Andrew Aberdein, but ten years later, I’m now writing about good varieties of bullshit in a post that is (hopefully) not bullshit. Similarly, so-called “bull sessions” allow participants to contribute ideas, which might turn out to be bullshit, in an attempt to later produce ideas that are not bullshit. There’s nothing objectionable about bull sessions so long as they are conducted sparingly. Again, too much fertilizer will kill your plants.
Example 3: Noodling on or experimenting with your musical instrument
There’s an old joke, probably made by classical musicians, that says that jazz is simply an excuse to play the wrong notes. While somewhat amusing, whoever came up with this joke demonstrates a lack of knowledge of or appreciation for the complex music theory, math, and logic–yes, math and logic–underlying jazz composition and improvisation (excluding, perhaps, free jazz), and implies that jazz is bullshit.
Admittedly, there is a lot of bullshit in jazz–musicians sometimes just play a bunch of notes that adhere to the music theory without regard to motivic development, musicality, or rhythm, or they simply play random notes, all of that be damned.
But playing random notes–noodling on or experimenting with your musical instrument–is sometimes conducive to solid, musical ideas. This can be considered a form of experimentation in which you let your ears decide what sounds good before you analyze why it sounds good. Again, however, messing around on your instrument should be done with moderation; doing it too much will make you sound like Kenny G gone mad, and sounding like a sane Kenny G is already not a good idea.
(2) Partially True or Inspiring Bullshit
Example 4: Discovering a true or inspiring piece of information from an essay or question in which a student bullshitted
Based on Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit, bullshit does not preclude the truth. It is the state of mind of the bullshitter–an indifference to the truth–that makes something bullshit, not the product of someone with that state of mind. Frankfurt focuses on the bull, so to speak, rather than the shit. G.A. Cohen focuses instead on the shit and defines bullshit as, roughly, nonsense.
Since bullshit à la Frankfurt does not preclude truth, it is possible that one might find invaluable truths in a paper on which the student bullshitted. For instance, a bullshitting psychology major might mention in a philosophy paper Martin Seligman’s learned helplessness experiments on dogs, and the reader, a philosophy professor who is not familiar with Martin Seligman’s famous experiment, might learn something new. Similarly, bullshit à la Cohen might contain nonsense, but that nonsense might, in the right hands, serve as inspirational material. The reader might be inspired to create a great piece of art or write a philosophy thesis on the topic of bullshit.
I remember a sixth grade classmate who would raise his hand and ask bullshit questions just to mess with our science teacher: “What would happen if you froze a cockroach, then pulled off its legs, and then put it in a pot of boiling water”–something a long those lines. The teacher, ever patient and erudite, would entertain such stupid questions with as much scientific rigor a sixth grader can handle. He might say something like this:
“First, if you put the cockroach in the freezer, it would probably die. Cockroaches do not do well in extremely cold temperatures. To be sure, their biological mechanisms allow them to survive if the temperature gradually decreases, but they would most likely die in less than an hour if they are placed from room temperature into sub-zero temperature. Boiling the cockroach would…” You get the idea.
So, given a bullshit question whose bullshitter most likely doesn’t care about the answer, the teacher would transform the question into an interesting educational moment for the students who cared.
Again, any type of bullshit is bad in excess, and the teacher recognized this. While teaching the word “crest” in the context of soundwaves, he asked if we had ever seen the word “crest.”
“Crest toothpaste?” asked a girl, whom I had a crush on. The teacher thought that was a good example. I raised my hand:
“Crest toothbrush?” I ventured, attempting to impress.
I forgot what he said, but had he been a cruder man, he would’ve told me to stop with the bullshit.
Example 5: Identifying a logical fallacy in a joke that relies on logic to be funny
Joke: Rene Descartes walks into a bar and orders a drink. When he finishes his drink, the bartender asks him if he would like another. Descartes replies, “No, I think not,” and disappears in a puff of logic.
I’m guessing many philosophy majors and philosophers know this joke, but it wasn’t until my philosophy professor explained how shitty the joke is that I found the joke to be unfunny, and his explanation funnier.
The joke relies on one of Descartes’s most famous lines: Cogito ergo sum, or “I think; therefore, I am.” When Descartes says he “thinks not,” he therefore is not, so he “disappears in a puff of logic.”
The joke commits what is called the fallacy of denying the antecedent. This is how it works:
- Therefore, ~Q
In other words, this says
- If P, then Q
- Not P
- Therefore, not Q
That’s like saying
- If I am a Prick, then I should Quit talking.
- I am not a Prick.
- Therefore, I should not Quit talking.
This is a logical fallacy because it incorrectly assumes that the only reason one should Quit talking is that one is a Prick. Perhaps I am not a prick, but a pleasant person sitting in a library. Or perhaps I am sitting in a movie theater watching A Quiet Place. Either way, I should still quit talking.
At any rate, the Descartes joke is bullshit because it is fallacious, but, ironically, it inspired me to think more critically.
(3) Horsing Around Bullshit
Example 6: Giving a friend a bullshit gift
I’ve already mentioned the poo pourri spray that I gave my professor. That spray is bullshit. One of my students gave me a wooden bottle opener in the shape of a penis. That’s also bullshit. For Christmas, someone gave my wife a handmade iPhone constructed out of cardboard. That’s another bullshit gift. But we all chuckled a little, anyway. It seems from our reaction to these gifts that bullshit gift giving is one way to horse around, to casually and inexpensively strengthen the bond between the gift giver and the recipient. You don’t want to overdo this, though. For instance, if I received a phallic bottle opener every year from the same person, I would believe that the person simply does not care and is insincere.
Example 7: Responding to bullshit with bullshit.
“Everyone sins,” said my Christian friend. “Do you have any redeeming qualities?” He expected me to balk.
“Yeah, I have a redeeming quality,” I replied.
“What is it?” he asked, curiosity piqued and ready for a debate.
“I have a bigger dick than you,” I explained.
This type of Horsing Around Bullshit serves to simultaneously mitigate conflict and more effectively call out people’s bullshit–make them taste their own medicine, as it were. I knew that getting into a philosophical debate about the existence of god and the meaning of “redeeming quality” was futile–the person had already made up his mind. I still wanted to stay friends with him, though, and I still wanted to call him out on his bullshit, so I thought the best way to accomplish both these goals is to spit out a bullshit repartee and shut him up.
There was reportedly a similar conversation between my professor and one of his students. After the professor taught some philosophy, that student responded, “Yeah, but those are just words.” The professor responded: “What you said was just words too.”
Here, the professor (and logician) deliberately committed the fallacy ad hominem tu quoque (a fallacious appeal to hypocrisy) to make a point and shut the student up.
Lastly, there’s the joke in which a college student complains that he can’t take a final exam because he’s “sexually exhausted.” That’s obviously bullshit. The punchline comes from the hypothetical professor: “I guess you’ll just have to learn to use your other hand.” The rejoinder is bullshit, of course, because the professor does not care about the truth or falsity of whether the student jerked off. But it’s a clever response that shuts a smart ass up and gets him to do his exam. So much for horsing around with bullshit sex jokes.
Example 8: Writing mediocre satire or literature in your personal blog for fun or for therapeutic reasons
In case you haven’t noticed, the majority of this blog contains mediocre satire that I write for fun. Some of the satire can’t even be considered satire, because satire is, according to Oxford Languages, “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” I’m not sure if the fake news I write always “expose[s] and criticize[s] people’s stupidity or vices”–I once used a photo of my friend for a post in which I wrote some bullshit about how he is the illegitimate child of the Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, how he incited a riot in Beijing and now teaches high school math while he hides in Taiwan, but that article accomplished nothing other than to confuse and entertain his math students and piss him off. I regret deleting that article, but it was fun and therapeutic while it lasted. I’ll say this again: Producing too much bullshit will backfire. This is possibly an example of excessive bullshit.
(4) Confidence-Boosting Bullshit
Example 9: Practicing speaking non-stop on the independent speaking portion of the TOEFL
Fake it ’til you make it. On standardized tests that require speaking, such as the TOEFL and IELTS, many ESL students lack confidence and end up hemming and hawing until time is up. I’ve written about how standardized tests often encourage test takers to bullshit, but in cases like these bullshitting seems to be one of the few strategies that facilitate English fluency. For example, if the TOEFL speaking prompt is “Should old buildings be replaced with new ones? Give specific reasons to support your opinion,” the student has only 15 seconds to prepare before he or she has to talk for 45 seconds. TOEFL’s purpose is not to test you on critical thinking; it’s purpose is to see if you are linguistically proficient. Thus, the student can say that old buildings should be demolished because they are less capable of surviving earthquakes, or the student can say that the old buildings should not be replaced by new ones due to the former’s historic value. Once again (and again and again and again), too much bullshit is bad. If the student were to say that old buildings should not be demolished because doing so will spur hyperinflation and incite civil war, he or she would probably get a low score.
Example 10: Talking to yourself in the mirror before making an important speech
In my old post “You like that bruh? Yeah, you do,” I touched upon the power of self-affirmation and positive self talk, which I believe to be bullshit. But this type of bullshit can be beneficial. If you were to make an important speech–maybe your closing argument in a trial or something along those lines–you might find it helpful to talk to yourself, perhaps in front of a mirror. Like this:
But, and you know what I’m gonna say already…too much bullshit is bad. Too much positive self talk might be ineffective, and if you tell yourself how awesome you are all the time, you will probably just believe in your own bullshit and become a pretentious prick.
Example 11: Making small talk with strangers to overcome social phobia
If you have social phobia, you will find it difficult to talk with strangers about anything. Thus, to overcome your phobia, what you have to do is to make small talk with them–what you say isn’t as important. However, if you bullshit too much, you might end up embarrassing yourself and become more anxious, and those who could have become your friends might think you are just plain weird.
(5) Dealing-with-Emergencies Bullshit
Example 12: Surviving a kidnapping
If you were kidnapped, your chances of survival would increase if you were a bullshit artist. You shouldn’t care about whether what you say is true; all you should do is to pretend that you care. You should pretend that you care that the kidnapper is a decent human being who wouldn’t hurt or murder you. You should pretend that you care about Pink Floyd as much as the kidnapper does, whether or not you enjoy Pink Floyd. You should pretend that you care about the kidnapper’s future and his possibility of being thrown in jail. Therefore, what you say to the kidnapper is, by Frankfurt’s definition, bullshit. Too much bullshit will get yourself killed, though. Say that the kidnapper is a complete psychopath, and he tells you, “I know what you’re trying to do, and it’s not going to work on me.” In that case, you’d probably be better off if you shut up, at least for a while. Also, if you know next to nothing about Pink Floyd but claim you do, and the kidnapper asks what your favorite Pink Floyd album is and all you know is The Dark Side of the Moon, you might end up On the Run, with Brain Damage, or dead.
Example 13: Communicating with a suicidal and psychotic individual
We’re getting a bit personal here. Nearly two years ago, I experienced psychosis, delusions of persecution, and suicidal ideation. I told my wife not to utter a single word of bullshit to me, because I’d had enough bullshit. In retrospect, she, perhaps unintentionally, bullshitted me occasionally, but just occasionally, and just enough so I would not see through her occasional bullshit. That was dangerous. Had she bullshitted a little more, I would probably have leaped off a building or stabbed myself.
Similarly, an anti-bullshit warrior I shall not name played a game of bullshit with me that saved my life. Convinced that the phone was tapped, I responded to a series of questions this person asked me.
“Are you on any drugs?” he asked.
“Is Kant a utilitarian?” I responded.
Looking back, I believe the game was bullshit. But it probably helped to convey to the person that I was delusional and psychotic, and it made me feel safer and behave less erratically.
Example 14: Saving someone’s life
In “Raising the Tone: Definition, Bullshit, and the Definition of Bullshit,” Andrew Aberdein gives a great example of morally permissible bullshit. Consider his scenario in which “one might tell a critically injured person that ‘Help is on its way’, despite having no idea whether this was true, because one was hoping for the best, and did not wish to needlessly demoralize someone clinging to life” (168). Without question, the speaker’s actions are altruistic, and despite the fact that his statement is pure Frankfurt bullshit, we do not hold it against him for bullshitting. In fact, the judicious decision under such circumstances would be to bullshit: to say anything to the critically injured individual just to keep him alive.
Bullshit is almost always bad, but occasionally, it can be good if used in moderation. However, I would venture that, if you’re not sure whether you should bullshit, you probably shouldn’t.
- Aberdein, Andrew. “Raising the Tone: Definition, Bullshit, and the Definition of Bullshit.” Edited by Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch. In Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time, 151-69. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2006.
- Cohen, Gerald A. “Deeper into Bullshit.” Edited by Sarah Buss and Lee Overton. In Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt, 321-44. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
- Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
- Lessons taught by Scott Aikin, Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, friend and self-proclaimed bad Stoic
- Conversation with Mark Samson, friend and anti-bullshit progressor
- Conversation with Joseph Shamis, friend and anti-bullshit progressor