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?