A slightly shorter version of this was published as the 14th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Whenever the pressures of the world get too much for me, I lighten the burden by going over to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Trump, the only president who would fail the Turing Test, keeps lashing out at opponents and saying outrageous things, often in ALL-CAPS, the internet version of screaming. It’s wonderfully entertaining, and got even more so when he lashed out at Narendra Modi last week.
Trump said: “I could give you an example where I get along very well with India and Prime Minister Modi. But he is constantly telling me, he built a library in Afghanistan. Library! That’s like five hours of what we spend. And he tells me. He is very smart. We are supposed to say, oh thank you for the library. Don’t know who’s using it in Afghanistan.”
Modi fanbois also tend to be Trump fanbois because they like macho men, and this must have been confusing to them at multiple levels. One, why was Trump lashing out at Modi? Two, if Trump is telling the truth, why does Modi keep boasting about building a library? Three, what library?
After much googling in the PMO, our officials figured that despite having spent over US$ 3 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, we hadn’t built a library. Maybe Trump confused the parliament building with a library – but it was unlikely that Modi would boast to Trump even about that, especially ‘constantly.’ So Trump was lying, right?
No, Trump wasn’t lying, I say. He was bullshitting.
I’m not just dropping slang here. ‘Bullshit’ may appear to be a pejorative, but it has become a technical term after the philosopher Harry Frankfurt published his seminal book, On Bullshit, in 2005. And if we are to understand the likes of Trump, it is important to understand the distinction between ‘bullshit’ and ‘lies’.
A liar, as per Frankfurt, acknowledges the truth, and aims to deceive. For a bullshitter, the truth is irrelevant. Bullshitters aim not to deceive, but are just winging it, saying whatever comes into their head at a given point in time, which may or may not be true. For Trump, everything comes down to how macho he is, and how others are messing around at America’s expense and only he can stop them. His boast about Modi ‘constantly’ talking to him about a library was in this vein. He could also have said that Modi wears ladies underwear, or Modi begged him to open a casino in Lutyen’s Delhi, or Modi wore a suit with his name on it – any relationship that bullshit has with the truth is usually coincidental.
Trump bullshits a lot – and then doubles down on his bullshit once he has released it. For example, the wall that Mexico will pay for. I am sure he was winging it when he first came up with it.
Ironically, his latest target is a master bullshitter himself. When Modi spoke of the first plastic surgery in India being done on Lord Ganesha, or climate change being a consequence of people getting older, he wasn’t lying but bullshitting. He is not educated or knowledgeable enough to know the truth in any of those cases, so it does not matter to him. And it seems not to matter to any of us either.
Politicians can get away with bullshit (and lying) because people don’t care about facts. We tend to form echo chambers with like-minded people, form whatever worldview appeals to us, and shut ourselves off from conflicting views.
Behavioural scientists point to hard-wiring in the brain that strengthens this process. The Confirmation Bias ensures that we only consider facts that agree with our worldview and ignore the rest. The Backfire Effect, worryingly for fact-checkers, ensures that our worldviews actually grow stronger when we are presented with conflicting evidence.
These echo chambers, once formed, tend to grow more and more strident. Experiments by social scientists have found that when people with similar opinions are thrown together in a group, they tend to take decisions more extreme than any one individual would take. (This is known as ‘group polarisation’.) You see this in social media, where discourse is polarised and opposing sides are talking past each other, not to each other, with every individual performing to impress his own side.
When all discourse takes place along tribal lines, rhetoric matters, facts don’t.
Is bullshit a feature or a bug? An entire nation will vote upon it this year, as India goes to the polls. Narendra Modi has focussed entirely on optics and not on performance, betting that once people have formed a narrative inside their heads, facts are irrelevant. Is an A+ in campaigning more important than a F in governance? We will soon find out what the people of India think.