As reported at This Mormon Life ("TML"), there was a short presentation at the recent Sunstone Symposium summarizing Harry Frankfurt's book On Bullshit (Princeton Univ. Press, 2005) and, of course, applying its thesis to discourse in the LDS Church. I was interested enough to go find a copy of the book (well, booklet) and read it. In this post I will comment briefly on the book, then consider (in order) LDS BS, Sunstone BS, and DMI BS. No kidding.
The book is short, 67 pages with maybe 100 words per page. You could read it out loud in about an hour. The author likens bullshit to "humbug," noting that BS discourse is like lying in that the statements made may not be true, but unlike lying in that the speaker doesn't necessarily care (or even know) whether the statements are true or not. Advertising, politics, and even preaching probably spring to mind as fertile ground for this sort of BS discourse, but, as noted by the author, there's a lot of it going around everywhere. Here's a paragraph from the publisher's page, giving an idea why the topic is serious enough for a respected moral philosopher to publish a book on the subject:
[B]ullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
So the essence of the disease is a willingness to use what Frankfurt calls deceptive misrepresentation. Not hard to guess where a Sunstone presentation is going to to with that idea.
The presenter was Scot Denhalter. Besides presenting at Sunstone (the symposium), he edits a feature in Sunstone (the magazine) and posts at Sunstone (the blog). See here and here for short bio-like blurbs. According to the summary at TML, Denhalter talked about three sources of Mormon BS: church manuals; LDS books written by "lay people who have little or no academic training to support their theories"; and "incautious counseling" or ecclesiastical BS one hears when bishops "give advice to members beyond their authority and calling." (The quotes are from the TML writeup, not directly from the speaker.)
Denhalter suggested a lot of this BS is harmless, and that much of the ecclesiastical BS results from the spiritual laziness of some rank-and-file members who would rather pester their bishop for a recommendation on some item not directly related to a bishop's calling than take responsibility for educating themselves and making their own decision. Seems like a reasonable description of what happens sometimes. Sounds like this was an entertaining presentation.
Just to be fair, it's worth pointing out that Frankfurt's book did not directly address religious BS and, in fact, Frankfurt would likely disagree with the notion that religious discourse has more BS than any other particular type of social discourse. [Not that Denhalter tried to make that particular point, but from the context of the remarks, some might think that point is implied.] Yes, there are examples of Mormon BS, but Frankfurt's point is that it is everywhere. The first lines in the book are these:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.
So, for example, there is no shortage of Sunstone bullshit to go around. That might be because Sunstone is simply a specialized corner of Mormondom and its own BS is therefore simply a specialized part of the larger pool of general Mormon BS. Or maybe they create their own from scratch. But they've got their fair share, just like everyone else.
Like church manuals or Sunstone presentations, LDS blogging is subject to the BS disease as much as any other form of discourse. Isn't it? Or does reflective writing tend to cleanse the discourse, so to speak? A lot of the BS in general culture derives from situations where people are required to speak on behalf of an organization or institution. You might think of this as "sponsored BS." But nobody is forced to write books or poetry or blogs. Nobody sponsors reflective personal writing. So maybe one is less likely to find BS or "deceptive misrepresentation" on blogs. Then again, maybe not. And if that argument were to hold true for blogs, it should arguably hold true for boards as well, but my general sense is that board posters dish out plenty of BS and "deceptive misrepresentation." It practically defines the genre. So I would say that the actual distribution of BS across the wide spectrum of Mormon discourse is an open question. The only point relative to LDS BS that we can safely draw from Frankfurt's little book is that there is plenty of it to go around.
As a final point, and whatever your opinion on blogs in general ... LET ME ASSURE YOU, dear reader, that DMI is a no bullshit blog. I can't speak for any other bloggers, but I would rather cram my laptop in one end and out the other than dish out BS to the unsuspecting reader. And let me tell you, some people go ballistic at the drop of a hat when talking about religion, so trying to talk about Mormonism in a relatively objective manner is no easy task. There are times (and I won't name names) when I am sorely tempted. But when I feel myself slipping into deception and I hear the gentle muse of blogging whisper "bullshit" in my ear, I stop dead in my tracks, hit the delete key, and go do some yardwork as penance. When it comes to blogging, I think you have to make your reputation on being honest, even unmerciful. Blogging is not for the faint of heart. So give up the BS and just tell it like it is. Funny, the truth just sounds different.