One of the more obvious things about life is that some people are more intolerant of bullshit than others. By “bullshit”, I don’t mean using big words or fancy phrases. Nor do I mean any particular philosophical, political, or religious ideology. I don’t even mean showing up to a sex orgy dressed in a chicken outfit with a bible underarm and a feather duster stuck up your ass. All of those may be called bullshit by some people, but they are not what I mean here by bullshit.
“Bullshit” in the context of this post means a poorly grounded claim or proposition that is being asserted as established truth. “Conservatives are racists.” “Progressives hate the rich.” “Priests molest children.” “Atheists feel empty and unfulfilled.” If you take those statements to mean, “all” — in the sense of, “All Conservatives…”, or “All Progressives…” — then those statements are pure, liquid bullshit. And some people are more intolerant of those kinds of statements than others.
Indeed, some people have almost violent reactions to bullshit. Or, at least to what they think is bullshit. They become visibly upset or angry. Other people — or maybe some of the same people — flinch or cringe. Bullshit strikes them like fingernails dragged across a chalkboard, like the “wrong” kind of music, like one of my poems.
Maybe the intolerance some people have for bullshit is partly explained by the fMRI study Harris, Sheth, and Cohen did which found,”The acceptance and rejection of propositional truth-claims appear to be governed, in part, by the same regions [of the brain] that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors” (p. 146 .pdf). That is, more or less the same brain cells are being used to decide whether some claim is true as are being used to judge whether something smells or tastes foul. If so, that might be part of the reason some of us have such visceral reactions to what they think is bullshit.
Of course, I’m not saying that people who are highly intolerant of bullshit always know what is or is not bullshit. Perhaps ironically, being intolerant of bullshit seems to have little or nothing to do with being right about whether or not something is bullshit.
People who accept evolution often enough think Creationism is full of bullshit. But some Creationists have the same gut reaction to the Theory of Evolution. Apparently, it annoys, angers, and exasperates them. So, what matters is not whether something is bullshit or not, but whether one thinks something is bullshit or not.
If our bullshit meter were a reliable truth detector, we could throw out all the scientific methods. We wouldn’t need such cumbersome, laborious methods to determine whether we had arrived at reliable fact.
I think most of us are in the middle when it comes to tolerating bullshit. We put up with it to get along, and we put up with it to a point. Now and then, we reach our limit for the day.
Our neighbor, though, might be someone with a much greater tolerance for bullshit than we have. The other day, someone was telling me he didn’t care whether his religious beliefs were true because their truth or falsity was less important to him than their contribution to his “self discovery and self-realization”. “I don’t want to know if I’m right or wrong. I want to know who I am.”
I wonder if our tolerance for bullshit more or less matches how conscientious we are at trying to establish the truth of a matter?
- If I am highly tolerant of bullshit, am I relatively less conscientious at establishing truths?
- And if I am highly intolerant of bullshit, am I relatively more conscientious?
I don’t know of any studies done on that subject, but my guess is that it is not as simple as that. That’s just an intuition, though. And I can’t come up with any good reasons in support of it, so maybe there are none. Maybe it’s just as simple as it looks: People who dislike bullshit are relatively more careful not to indulge themselves in it.
My last question is: Do we become numb to bullshit? Is it possible there’s so much bullshit today that it numbs us? That we scarcely notice most of it anymore, and sometimes hardly respond to what we do notice? What do you think?