Schrödinger awoke, feeling somewhat precarious, an unease emanating from deep within, radiating skittishly through his body, registering as a trembling of his limbs. Somehow he had become entangled with the cat. It stretched out inside him, its forelimbs and claws an elusive but real presence inside the canals of his arms. Man and feline were not harmonically resonant. A tuneless, wary, nervous wail. A caterwaul. A hell of a hangover. A katzenjammer. Just thinking of the word made him-
He stretched his body over the warm naked back and rump of his lover, who made a small noise of protest, his head over the side, reaching underneath, crossing the channel in truculent weather to meet her in England, waves meeting waves, and threw up into the bedpan.
Picture a polished wooden floor, dark as mahogany, absent of furniture, in a large room with a bay window. You begin to look at the thick, imperfect glass, when a white door opens at the far side of the room. The man entering the room has a name. We’ll call him Michael. Michael closes the door and sees a large plain-looking box on the floor. He approaches it, noticing now an ever so faint humming sound. He puts his ear to the box. A quiet but harsh buzzing behind the hum, as if the box contains a billion furious generals. Straining to pick out more, he eventually discerns the unpatterned clashing of what could be swords on shields or tuneless cymbals.
Michael presses his ear to the box, a finger in the other ear. A barely audible succession of high pitched short shrieks. He pulls back instinctively. He sees for the first time that the sides of the box do not meet perfectly, and from thin spaces between uneven joins.. the faint glow of a smoky red light. There are now clear cries of distress from inside.
Michael decides this is a very dangerous box and he should sit on it to prevent any of its terrible contents from escaping. When he has been sitting on the box for a good hour, a small demon nonetheless wriggles free. It flies around his head mischievously, poking him with its tiny but sharp trident, evading his attempts to catch it or swat it away. After one fruitless lunge, he hears the demon deep inside his ear, loud and true.
“You are the box” it says. The terrors that Michael feared swarm around his head, mocking, hissing, howling at him. Hideously aged and scarred faces; bloodthirsty battalions of the disaffected, in black uniforms, scything down homely couples and drifters alike; a girl begging him desperately to rescue her. When the bullet strikes, her face disappears and for a frozen moment a miraculous crested wave of dark liquid hangs in the air, then time returns with a sickening splash upon the pavement. He sees a hungry man eating from a day old dog corpse with his bare hands. He sees wretches flayed alive on the orders of a holy man. He sees and he sees, countless images of death. And he hears every sound. Worst of all, his own face before him, screaming wildly, although he himself can only watch, his lips unparted.
The box was an illusion. All the evils of the world are unrestrained, dancing before him, and he cannot look away. His visions coalesce; they whirl about him and, then, they enter him through his ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. Soon, the man conquered,all is still, and there is no longer anything of note in the room.
A white door opens, and Gabriel enters the room. He sees a plain-looking box. As he walks across the polished wooden floor he can make out a faint hum…
If you’ve ever played poker at a pace a bit slower than the breakneck speed of online rooms, you’ll know, I hope, that a flatterer isn’t necessarily your friend. Hold onto this knowledge, it may come in handy as you read the article.
Dodgy politicians and other professional bullshitters take advantage of the fact anyone can put together words in a sentence and the sentence can seem okay at first but colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
“Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” is Noam Chomsky’s classic example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but meaningless. Okay, so Dr Chomsky may not have the soul of a poet, but it’s obvious that colourless green things don’t exist. Certainly not in the same way that rocks and water and trees exist. Not even in the same way that feelings exist. We can’t even picture a thing that is both green and colourless. If something is green then of course it has colour. Unlike feelings, colourless green ideas sleeping furiously cannot be seen or felt or heard or in any other way directly experienced. Nor can they be measured, for that matter.
We could make the words of Chomsky’s sentence mean something, write some kind of essay about metaphors and similes to impress an English teacher, but we know that we would be doing a clever job with nonsense.
Green furiously quickly ideas Rolls Royce
is even worse. It’s obvious bullshit. If you are like me, it probably hurts a little to read. Unfortunately, professional bullshitters put the nouns and verbs and what have you in the right places. You’re too clever to be fooled by someone who can’t put together a sentence proper.
Bullshitters make it harder by often giving us sentences that have no information in them but are not gibberish. We call them ‘tautologies’ . Here is a tautology:
A rabbit is a rabbit.
An entry from the world’s worst dictionary, I’m sure you’ll agree. “A rabbit is a rabbit” is hard to argue with, and it sounds as if the person saying it is quite sure what a rabbit is and they aren’t going to listen to any nonsense about a rabbit being a furious colourless idea. This person knows their rabbits, doesn’t compromise when it comes to rabbits, and probably if you asked them to get you a rabbit, you might think, they would give you a rabbit, by God, and not some French lapin or German hasebunny. (It helps the bullshitter if you don’t know much about rabbits).
You might see where I am going with this. You may or may not even be sharpening furious ideas.
I’m certainly not going to say that Brexit is bullshit. Or even that it is the wrong decision. What I am going to say, which I hope everyone can be united on, is that “Brexit means Brexit” tells us nothing about what Brexit means. It does tell us something about Theresa May however. No-one of any hue should be surprised by the revelation that Theresa May, a politician, and by most accounts some description of human being, is not immune to bullshit.
When the PM said “Brexit means Brexit”, she was declaring herself an authority on Brexit, and someone who is going to take no nonsense. She is telling us that she intends to make sure that Brexit happens. That’s all the information she has given. The rest, as you probably already know, is bullshit.
All well and good, and leaver and remoaner alike should be able to agree on the following sentences. No-one knows exactly what Brexit means because it hasn’t happened yet. No-one knows what a Brexit even looks like because no-one has ever seen one of the major countries exit the European Union. Greenland is rather smaller, and got out earlyish, but we can confirm that Greenland still exists and hasn’t yet started World War III.
We might know what Brexit doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean an end to free movement and yet somehow keeping free trade. The reason we know this is much the same as we would know a rabbit can’t be both green and colourless, even if we had no idea what a rabbit is.
Leaving the choppy waters of Brexit behind us, what can we do to help us spot bullshit and avoid being taken in by it? It’s simple, but part of it goes against the grain of what makes us comfortable:
Don’t trust politicians and other professional bullshitters who say things that you agree with and make you feel good. It’s funny, but it’s the same advice for avoiding being taken in by a con artist, isn’t it?
We are all better at spotting the flaws of those who we think are not on our side. So here is a simple tip to help avoid being the patsy in the room:
Question your friends as you do your enemies.
Oh, and a lot of what I said in this article is not strictly true. You have to bullshit a little to prepare for the next level. But you’re a worldly person, you already knew that. Potato chip?
I miss people still who are no longer part of my life. I won’t mention them all (especially the most obvious one, the one I miss most of all) but, for example, I was out with a friend today and we were talking about Alexandra Palace. It is a place that holds so many good memories for me. I went for my first date with EW there. For all the heartache and conflict that came after, that was a day that was lovely, relaxed, loving. It wasn’t the only one we had. I will always treasure walking on that sunny day between the trees, full of optimism, enjoying each other’s company.
Friends and lovers and family have arrived and disappeared.
Family holidays. Visiting a steam train. Floating in the sea. Watching laughing and smiling as the ten year old is both excited by and nervous about the fish who want to nibble the dead skin from his toes. Cuddling in bed. The jokes. The understanding. So many memories that will always be a part of me, good and bad. Real. Whatever has happened with others, whatever they have done to me or whatever they think of me now, genuine moments, moments of delight, intimacy, and warmth shared with other humans. I wouldn’t want to lose access to them. Those people I have had those connections with I could never stop caring about them, beyond any anger and arguments, flaws and all. And I wouldn’t want to.