Press "Enter" to skip to content

In defense of the term “bullshit” (Sustainability & Bullshit 2)

A reader of my last blog was outraged that I used the vulgar term bullshit in connection with sustainability. According to him, that was not a term that belonged in a serious discussion. (And in the English contribution I had also added the phrase “pardon my French”, i.e. “I apologize in advance”).

Bullshit, however, is not a swear word, but a term for a genre of text, introduced and excerpted by Princeton sociologist Harry G. Frankfurt in his treatise “On Bullshit” (1986, 2005). The word element ‘bull’, as Wikipedia knows, comes etymologically from the Old French ‘bole’ for to deceive or to speak insincerely. And speaking insincerely, or in Frankfurt’s theory speaking without reference to or attention to truthfulness is ultimately what constitutes bullshit. All-clear for all sensitive minds. Bullshit, it can be noted, is not a metaphorical transfer from the excretions of a male bovine to statements of people or organizations.

Frankfurt’s theory has made it possible for bullshit to develop into a concept with which distinctions can be made between text forms, especially text forms that are commonly used in companies. Materially, it is necessary to distinguish between bullshit and lies. 

A liar, according to Frankfurt, knows the truth, but denies it. Nevertheless, in denying, the liar still shows respect for the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, does not care about truth because he is not interested in whether the truth comes to light or not, but because he puts his text in the service of deceiving his listeners. When an automobile manufacturer publishes emissions data of its passenger cars manipulated by software, they are lying if they know that the figures are falsified. When an automaker claims that CO2 emissions are already not that bad, and that the environment is still coping with all the pressures, they are bullshitting. Lies can be uncovered, liars exposed. Bullshit is tough and sticky, and it can hardly be dealt with through education, because bullshit is not about truth, but about bending arguments, often in the form of statements that cannot be refuted.

Herold, Dietrich, and Breitbarth (2020) argue that bullshit can sometimes be found in banks that report on social responsibility. I include, for example, the mostly past behavior of banks to report on the consumption of copy paper, or water and energy consumption at corporate headquarters. Bullshit because: what ESG risks do banks actually have on their loan books? Bullshitting in the context of CSR is that part of reporting to give the company a better public image, self-promotion, i.e. – more clearly: corporate PR – and not to advance social or environmental issues. 

Why doesn’t bullshit in CSR catch on (or, as I believe, get shrugged off for what it is, a red herring)? Bullshit can only take hold when the audience does not have a full picture of the bullshitter’s actions and when the bullshitter does not expect to be held accountable.  We don’t have to put up with bullshit. Many of the life-world issues are complex and need to be interpreted or construed. This is the angle that bullshit seeks. It is in our best interest to name bullshit. It is the only way to contain it.

Comments are closed.