I am always impressed by the ingenuity of journalists who can yoke two ideas together to make a point. Readers may remember the tabloid summing up of the controversy in episcopalian circles over admitting women as priests. This controversy was memorably condensed in the headline: 'Vicars in Knickers'. Many cartoonists have these abilities as well. I never cease to admire the skills, graphic and well-informed, of The Herald
But I was startled by the headline of a Herald
essay a few weeks ago. It warned us to beware the vegan elite because they are stepping up the war on meat. Vegans as an elite? The article gave me the opportunity to outdo journalists and link three ideas together: elites, vegans and bullshit.
I used to be put on appointing committees for lectureships at Glasgow University. I was the fringe member for committees on a variety of subjects including a range of the social sciences. I always made a point of asking them to explain to a layman what their research was about. Within half a dozen sentences most of them introduced the term elite and I always asked them what an elite was. To this day I don't know. Candidates spoke of 'ruling elites', 'educational elites', 'elite schools and universities'. Was it good or bad to be part of an elite? The term 'elite' was often connected with being 'privileged' and therefore bad. But what about elite troops? And elite universities have been pretty good at developing vaccines.
I was once described as an elitist because I went to Scottish Opera. I pointed out that Stalin himself went to operas. Mind you, it didn't further the career of Shostakovitch when Stalin walked out before the end of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Anyway, I never heard tell of elite vegans. Of course, some vegans may secretly be pleased with this characterisation because it gets away from the bearded, woolly-jumpered and ineffectual image which journalists like to pin on them. Moreover, since the article warns us of powerful vegan interests who are fighting a war, perhaps vegans can now see themselves as elite troops.
The article is a gift to any logician looking for an exercise in bad argument. For example, the article tells us that Greenpeace has no track record in feeding us but farmers do. That is obviously correct. But bus drivers and accountants don't have a track record in feeding us either. That is not what they do.
The crucial point, we are told, concerns what the article calls 'the whole anti-meat circus'. (In fact, I don't think vegans would be very happy with circuses.) This crucial point concerns the ringmasters who are, yes, you've got it, 'white elites'. They impose a 'neo-colonial'... prescription which 'ignores all; classes, cultures and ethnicities'. And I thought they just didn't like eating dead cows, force-fed calves and farmed salmon, and had a concern for the future of the planet.
The over-the-top language of the article takes me to my third theme inspired not just by the newspaper article but also by current debates in Westminster and Holyrood – bullshit. Philosophers traditionally write books with titles such On Truth
, On Justice
, On Knowledge
, On Determinism
and so on, but two distinguished American philosophers have written books with more arresting titles. Max Black has written on the prevalence of humbug and Harry Frankfort has written on the similar, if less polite term 'bullshit'. 'Humbug' has a certain Pickwickean charm, but I shall use the the more down-to-earth term 'bullshit'.
Bullshit is not the same as lies. A liar knows what the truth is and deliberately deceives. The crucial point is that liars know or believe they know what the truth is and think it important. It is just that for some reason or another they don't want others to know it. Bullshitters on the other hand have little interest in the truth as such. They have a variety of aims usually connected with each other, such as trying to divert attention away from something damaging to themselves, appearing more profound or clever than they are, or just getting rich quick. Their concern is anything but the truth of things.
One obvious area where bullshitting is prevalent is politics. Politicians are given to utterances such as: Covid infections will end sooner/last longer than many people think. If this is said with sufficient solemnity on a grand occasion, it will be reported in newspapers. This is bullshit, partly because no one knows for sure when, or indeed whether, the virus will cease to infect us, but mainly because it is not saying anything at all.
In his essay on bullshit, Harry Frankfort quotes a father giving moral advice to his son: Never lie if you can bullshit. I am not sure that Kant would recognise that as a categorical imperative, but it is certainly good advice for politicians. If you tell a lie as a politician, the media are out to get you and threaten you with the ministerial code. But it is harder to pin bullshit on a politician. It does not lend itself to pinning.
The BBC is given to modifying anything it says with some version of 'on the one hand but on the other hand'. But very recently BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg socked it to No 10 with a blog. She says that in her experience politicians rarely tell lies, but she does attribute bullshitting to them. She does not, of course, use the word 'bullshitting', no doubt because, in BBC-speak, it is a term of 'strong language' which 'some readers might find offensive'. Nevertheless, she does quote a former minister as saying to her: 'The problem is that the PM treats facts like he treats all his relationships – utterly disposable once inconvenient. It's all about power. Facts, policies, people – they all get ditched if they are in the way. Whatever is necessary'. It is just as well for that minister that he (he?) is no longer in post. But Laura should watch her back. A BBC editor is meant to be more bland.
Laura speaks of the PM's 'complicated relationship with truth', which is a beautiful description of bullshitting. Nonetheless, this storm may blow over. I would be very surprised if the PM belonged to the 'powerful vegan elite', but the 'ruling elite' may defend him. Alternatively, if they see their own interests being damaged, the same 'ruling elites' may dump him.
There is a card game, I can't remember its name, in which the Joker can stand for any card. There are various words which serve as a substitute for more precise thought. They certainly include 'elitist'.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow