More BS from George F. Will

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George F. Will, "The havoc that Trump wreaks — on his own party", Washington Post 8/26/2015:

Trump, who uses the first-person singular pronoun even more than the previous world-record holder (Obama), promises that constitutional arrangements need be no impediment to the leader’s savvy, “management” brilliance and iron will.

As documented ad nauseam in earlier posts, Obama's rate of first-person singular usage is low relative to other recent presidents (see "Buzzfeed linguistics, presidential pronouns, and narcissism revisited", 10/21/2014). George F. Will has a long history of false statements and insinuations on this point ("Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009; "Fact-checking George F Will, one more time", 10/6/2009; "Another lie from George F. Will", 5/7/2012).

[And anyhow, according to a recent large study by Angela Cary et al.,"Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited" (2014), "Overall (r = .02, 95% CI [-.02, .04]) and within the sampled contexts, narcissism was unrelated to use of first-person singular pronouns". But never mind that…]

As I observed a few weeks ago, there are settings in which Donald Trump actually does use first-person-singular pronouns more frequently than his rivals ("Did a blind squirrel happen to find a nut?", 8/8/2015). So does this mean that George F. Will has reformed, and started to care about the empirical accuracy of his assertions and insinuations?

I don't think so. Fred Vultee spends a few minutes counting, and concludes that in his presidential announcement,

Trump comes in around 4.4%, which — going by the MSNBC chart reproduced at Language Log* — puts him about even with Ike and Bush Sr. but behind the notoriously uppity taciturn Harry Truman.

I have a feeling that my counts from the presidential debate are more characteristic of Mr. Trump's idiom than Fred's count from the announcement of his candidacy. But the facts, which matter to Fred and to me, don't seem to matter to George Will. Let me repeat what I wrote back in 2009,

Now, maybe there's some selection of Obama's interactions where his use of the first person singular pronoun is higher than expected for someone in his circumstances. Alternatively, maybe George F. Will is a bullshitter, who doesn't bother even to ask one of his interns to check whether the  alleged "facts" in his columns are true or false. We report, you decide.

In calling him a bullshitter, I'm not just flinging an off-color insult, as much as Mr. Will might deserve such treatment. Rather, I'm using a technical term, as defined by the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his monograph On Bullshit, Princeton University Press 2005. It's worth quoting a few paragraphs from that work:

[T]he essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. […]

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing  bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality  correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

As the old joke has it, if you look up bullshit in a dictionary of philosophy, you'll find (or should find) a picture of George F. Will.

So it's appropriate to repeat something else that I wrote in one of those earlier posts:

There are two interesting questions here, it seems to me. The first one is why George F. Will is so struck by rates of first-person usage, on the part of Barack and Michelle Obama, that are significantly lower than has been typical of recent presidents and first ladies on similar occasions. The second question is how many pundits and talking heads will follow his brainless lead this time around. […]

Now that I think of it, there's another significant question here as well. How in the world did our culture  award major-pundit status to someone whose writings are as empirically and spiritually empty as those of George F. Will?




  1. BobC said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

    This is a fine example of what Bill Maher calls a zombie lie – a lie that just won't die, no matter how many times it's been killed.

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

    While Frunkfurt's take on the bullshitter is very perceptive, I feel his analysis of the liar is too simple. Surely, in reality, liars often deceive themselves into believing their lies? At least, good liars do.

    I don't think that affects the substance of the argument though: if anything, it would support even more the notion of the liar's respect for the truth.

    BTW it says 'Frankfort' in the post.

    [(myl) Typo now fixed… Since you have "Frunkfurt" in your first line, there are only a few more combinations to explore: "Fronkfort", "Fronkfurt", "Frunkfart", "Fronkfart", unless we throw in some umlauts…]

  3. D.O. said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

    I think it is "so much worse for the facts" attitude known in philosophy (and punditry) well before Messrs. Frankfort and Will.

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

    @MYL –

    Hehe, the curse of Language Log. My hypothesis is that thinking about language co-opts some of the spellchecking machinery. Though that presumably makes a falsifiable prediction – a higher than average number of typos in linguistics papers compared to academic papers generally.

    Or I guess maybe the focus on language soups up the error-recognition machinery instead…

  5. Rubrick said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

    It's a pity "Frunkfart" isn't a Thing, since if it were we could dub bullshit usage tips in The Elements of Style "Strunkfarts", which would surely please Prof. Pullum no end.

  6. Rebecca said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 7:05 pm

    Another accusation of Trump narcissism, but with a different, but very vague, metric, based on his Alabama speech:

    "Approximately half of the talk was devoted to narcissistic bluster. Whatever issue he addressed in passing, Trump would interrupt himself to talk about himself"

  7. maidhc said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 2:00 am

    I was going to say "How can you not believe someone who wears a bow tie?", but I went to check my assumption before I posted, and it turns out George F. Will only sometimes wears a bow tie, despite my mental image of him as a perpetual bow tie sporter.

    Also my opinion of him went up 5 points when I found out that he coined one of my favorite epigrams: Football is a mistake. It combines the two worst elements of American life. Violence and committee meetings.

    I'm not totally sure that it qualifies as an epigram, because I couldn't find the rules for epigrams.

  8. Yuval said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

    Here's my chance to note that Jon Stewart gave an undeservingly-viral farewell speech from The Daily Show where he implores his audience to call bullshit when they see it, but completely ignores (or misses) the Frankfurtian distinction and just calls any lie (or deception, which is further yet) bullshit. It's disappointing and finally I can vent.

  9. Paul Mulshine said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

    Also, isn't "first-person singular PRONOUN" redundant? I can't think of a first-personal singular word that is not a pronoun.

    [(myl) The word "am" is a first-person singular verb form.]

  10. Paul Mulshine said,

    August 30, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    Good point. That is indeed a first-person singular usage. His real error is to refer to "THE first-person singular pronoun," which implies there is only one such pronoun, "I," when there are two others, "me" and "mine." He could have made the same point by leaving the word "pronoun" out. Of course, it's still wrong, but he'd save a word.

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