I was listening to a podcast the other day that was discussing ways to identify and avoid “bullshitting.” They made a clear distinction between what we refer to as bullshitting and lying. When you are lying, you know for a fact that what you are saying is untrue, but say it anyway for whatever reason. Bullshitting however, while often containing falsehoods, is different from lying in that the bullshitter does not know and/or care if what they are saying is true or not. In addition to that we often look at bullshitting as harmless, while we condemn liars.
The host of this podcast made an interesting point about what I’ve decided to call “benevolent bullshitting.” She brought up times in her life where she has exaggerated or embellished factual information in order to make a point or further an argument about something that she strongly believed in. They were categorizing this under the same umbrella term of bullshitting, but until then I had never really thought of it that way. Unfortunately I have definitely dabbled in this form of bullshitting more often than I’d like to admit.
Now that I’ve recognized this tendency in myself to support my point even when I may not actually have the facts to back it up, I wonder how often others do this as well. In the moment we feel justified in doing this. We are so desperate to change the mind of the person we are talking to. We are so sure that we are right. What is the harm then in exaggerating just a bit in order to get our point across, we ask ourselves. Looking back on the times when I have done this, I definitely think at the very least it has hurt my cause rather than helped it.
Not only are we being dishonest when we partake in benevolent bullshitting, we are doing a disservice to those we are talking to as well as to the issue we are attempting to bolster. If later it is found out that our assertions were unfounded, it could cause the other person to completely disregard all the other things we have said or will say in the future. They may become angry and write the issue off all together.
I am also a strong believer in being an example of what you’d like to see in the world. I certainly wouldn’t want the people I talk to to mislead me during our discussions. Therefore, why would I justify me doing the same to them? If I find myself in a situation where I cannot support my side of an issue honestly, then that’s a sign I need to do more research, not dig my heels in and continue trying to steamroll the other person into having the same opinion.
Knowing that I, myself, am a peddler of benevolent bullshit has helped me to be more cautious in conversation. I am more careful about what I say, but I am also more hesitant to take what the other person says at face value. I’m quite gullible and generally don’t consider that what someone says to me could very well be untrue, whether they realize it or not.
The phenomenon of benevolent bullshitting also highlights the discomfort we all seem to have about uncertainty or not knowing. Rather than being honest and admitting that we don’t know or have not heard the point the other side has just offered seems intolerable to us a lot of the time. Deep down it feels like we’ve lost the argument if we can’t rebut every comment immediately. However, when I am debating a topic with someone, I don’t ever feel as though I’ve “won” if they tell me they aren’t aware of the information I’m providing. To the contrary, I gain a lot of respect for someone that is able to do this.
The next time you are sharing your opinion or having a discussion with someone, try to be mindful of the temptation to partake in benevolent bullshitting. What might you decide to say instead? Can you get comfortable with admitting a certain degree of ignorance, even about an issue you’re passionate and knowledgeable about? Practice being humble enough to accept that you can’t be right all of the time. You can’t know everything. And that’s okay. Try to get curious when someone says something new or unexpected during a disagreement. Ask questions. Maybe you’ll learn something new! Which is always it’s own victory in my book. Perhaps you’ll even catch a bit of benevolent bullshitting from the other party, and get better at recognizing it.