Spotting the Golden Egg

* I owe a debt of gratitude to Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and Professor Davidson’s exclamations of the word “bullshit” in epsitemology class… which started me on this subject in the first place. And to both, I extend my deepest apologies. I was a dedicated political science student. And, as any student of politics knows, what political science is really about is the art of bullshitting. Bullshitting is the politician’s medium. Their finely crafted pieces of tauroscatologic masterpieces have no rival. They are Rembrandts in a room full of kindergarten fingerpainters. Politicians dispense bullshit to the public as freely as co-eds give it up in Cancun during spring break. And I was becomming a master. But then, philosophy happened. I found myself surrounded by people who claimed that philosophy was the real thing — a no bullshit zone. Philosophy wasn’t just opinions and rhetoric, my professors said, but was logically correct, and at times irrefutable. But why did it sound to me like so much of the bullshit that I was hearing in poly sci? Worse yet, I soon discovered that, along with my growing suspicions that all philosophy is bullshit, I found myself growing increasingly disturbed by my feelings towards some of my fellow philosophy students — I began to think that some of them were assholes. As time progressed, I realized that my impressions weren’t mere delusion or some resentment held over from poly sci, some of my fellow students really were assholes — big ones at that. And that led me to think: is it possible that there is a connection between being a bullshitter and being an asshole? Is it possible for us to investigate, not only who the purveyors of bullshit are, but also if there are personality traits that are common to bullshitters, jerks, wiseasses, smartasses, and all other people that we would just as soon toss out of an five story window than to offer a lift out of a crime-ridden neighborhood? My answer was yes. I had noticed that some of my fellow philosophy students had a high opinion of themselves. In and of itself, good self esteem is a good thing, but this high-falutinness was something out of the ordinary. For a time I wasn’t sure if they were actually smarter or if they had been, by way of the professors, convinced that they were smarter than everyone else. I had observed that a fair number of students dispensed a fair amount of bullshit — usually in the form of learned proclaimations that were meant to sound profound and convincing. For the most part, however, their statments did nothing more than sound like something sounding profound and convincing. All I knew for sure was that there was a definite type of personality that I observed among the students that had an over inflated opinion of their own mental capacity. Before I reached any definitve conclusion that they were assholes, I decided that I would ask other people to see if they saw what I thought that I was seeing. After conducting a very unscientific poll, I had reached the conclusion that it wasn’t just me who saw it — philosophy students tended to be assholes. There was a confirmed connection between people who thought highly of themselves and bullshitting. So, by way of induction, I concluded that those who dispensed bullshit tend to hav a high opinion of themselves, and those who tend to have a high opinion of themselves tend to be catagorized as assholes. I had to admit that, until that point, I hadn’t paid much attention to what kind of person lays out bullshit [as I had been fascinated with bullshit (as a product) itself]. I had been blissfully unaware that we are capable of knowing that we are capable of knowing what kind of person is prone to dealing out bullshit. I was ignorant of the fact that we can identify a particular person is a bullshitter by mere observation of certain personality traits. I wondered if there was a methodology to figuring out what kind of person I was dealing with. More importantly, I discovered why such a search would be important. As social beings, we depend on others to be open and honest with us, and that, ultimately forms our philosophis outlook on life. Our interactions with others and how we see others, informs how we classify them — as jerks, or smartasses, or even as good people. We, in turn, act, think, and speak according to how we perceive the personalities of others. If we, through experience, come to feel that the world is run by assholes, we will base our own interactions, thoughts and feelings accordingly. We may exhibit personality traits that make us what others may call “jerkish”, or “crummy to others”. One trait that I knew of with any certainty, was the connection between those who I and others had called assholes and a capacity for bullshitting. I was content that I had, indeed figured out the formula for finding out whether someone I knew was an asshole, and in my eagerness to label virtually everyone I knew an asshole, I realized my zeal had led me to an error: some of those who I had squarely tissed into the asshole camp were clearly not so. There were individuals who were different from the garden-variety assholes that I had encountered in my philosophy classes. Other students (some other philosophy students) seemed to exhibit asshole tendencies, yet something was missing. There was a something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on the they lacked. That moment I realized that there was a difference. Some people, upon further inspection, were not assholes. They were another breed entirely — they were smartasses. Bullshit, although elemental to determining who an asshole or a smartass may or may not be, is not the sole factor for determining if one is so. I will attempt to map out necessary and sufficient conditions for spotting an asshole or a smartass ( as I am not fully committed to the idea that one may be both). I acknowledge that my conditions in themselves may be inadequate, or not correct at all. The heart of this inquiry is to suggest that 1)there is a connection between a habit of bullshitting and the personalities of those who spread it with regularity, and 2) that it may be useful to us to know what the connection is. I feel that, as long as we stop to ponder bullshit, it may be apropos to know exactly from who all this bullshit is coming from. At this point, I realize that the impression may be that my inquiry is not one of serious academic merit, to which, to some extent, I heartily agree. However, in all seriousness, the genesis of my inquiry is only partially in jest. I insist that neither my inquiry, nor this posting is intened to disguise my using the word “asshole” repeatedly as serious philosophic discussion. And, although I realize the outward appearance of the unphilosophicness of the subject matter, I feel that a philosophic approach to this decidedly unphilosophic topic is not only warranted, but in some way overdue. Now that I have established the tenure of my approach to the subject, I must say here that my approach is merely one of inquiry. I posit no heavy philosophic examination of the subject, nor am I insisting that my approach is the right way to go about looking at the topic. Since I am still developing my “theory”, I will forgo technical labels such as “necessary” or “sufficient”, and will simply write out my thoughts as I initially thought them while sitting in my philosophy of language class. Firstly, I wondered if the nature of my query was ontological, episemological, or ethical. I quickly eliminated any ethical sonsideration of the subject on the grounds that no theory (perhaps with the exception of Kantian ethics) directly addressed by any moral theory. It is perfectly reasonable that a utlitarian can be an asshole (or a smartass) while simultaneously performing morally acceptable deeds. An egoist indeed might benefit more if the egoist were an asshole. Having thrown out ethical considerations, I moved on to an ontological or epistemological view on the subject. I figure that the subject can be approached either way, as figuring out whether a person is an asshole or a smartass includes questions involving the nature of one’s personality ( a metaphysical question), and what evidence we need to conclude that an individual is one or the other (epistomological). Which approach works best, however, I will leave to anyone who considers the subject. I feel that, in order to know, we must approach it from both directions. As I said at the outset, my quest was motivated by my fascination with bullshit. I had discovered that both bullshitters and smartasses possessed a capacity for bullshiting. And, true to Frankfurt’s description, assholes and smartasses seemed indifferent to the truth. Bullshitters, Frankfurt explains, are indifferent to the truth. This quality is the “essence of bullshit” (p. 34). Although both are indifferent to the truth, I feel that the motivation for this indifference differs between the asshole and the smartass. Frankfurt writes that the bullshitter carefully crafts his bullshit for the purposes of getting what he wants. He’s “trying to get away with something” (p.23). This aspect of bullshitting is also true of assholes. The asshole is always motivated by his need to get over on other people. Often, the victim of an asshole’s one over describes the experience as feeling like he has been shit on. But unlike Frankfurt’s bullshitter, the asshole cares not at all for what the listener of his bullshit feels. He’s not out to get you to feel anything. He is solely motivated to get what he wants. If you feel any emotional response for his bullshit, well, then good for you. You are all the more a sucker for his BS. Since the asshole has no intention of ever returning any favor, he has to maintain his chicanery as long as he is getting what he wants. His loyalty does not last long. It is worth noting here, that, unlike the bullshitter, whose worst fear is discovery (the fear that we will discover the he has been bullshitting us the whole time), the asshole has no such underlying fear. He is not only indifferent to his own bullshit, he is also indifferent to getting caught in the cat of bullshitting. This is the case because the asshole simply does not care about you. Although the asshole does not care about you, you (meaning other people) is essential for the asshole to be an asshole ( if I were to label a “necessary condition”, other people is a necessary condition for an asshole). The asshole, although he does not care how you feel, definitely wants a response out of you. This motivation, at its face, may seem contradictory. But for the asshole, the sentiment is not so much a contradiction, but a manifestation of the duplicitious nature of the asshole’s personality. In addition to not caring to your emotions, the asshole may appear to not care for his own actions. He may say that he does not care what he has to say of do to get what he wants. But, rest assured his motivation necessarily depends, if not on your emotional reactions, but on what your non-emotional reactions may be. That is, was the asshole successful in getting you to do what he wanted you to do? Like the asshole, the smartass is also motivated by a need to bullshit. His motivation, however, is not dependent on others. The smartass ignores other people. The smartass is not motivated by a need to get over on anyone. There is no such inner motive. The smartass says what he says because his words are pleasing to him, usually in an attempt at being humorous (this explains how a person can be a smartass absent of others. An asshole cannot. Think about it: can a person really be an asshole to himself?). The fact that anyone or no one reacts to what the smartass says is of no consequence to him or his goals. The fact that the smartass speaks at all is his goal. Indiffernece to truth, despite its importance, takes a backseat to the act of speaking itself. The bullshit that the smartass dispenses isn’t said for the sake of getting what he wants; it’s said because the smartass fancies himself a clever and funny person. Usually he is not — which is why he is often mistaken for an asshole.The smartass is, at his heart, self-centered. His aim is self amusement. He does not care if his “humor” is humorous to anyone but himself. Unlike the asshole, whose assholeness necessarily depends on the actions of others, the smartass truly does not care if anyone else cares or even hears his remarks. Because of this fact, the smartass is limited to words. The real thrust of his ability is his verbal capacity for witty and often crude comments. The asshole, on the other hand, faces no such limitations. His assholliness in not limited to language, but also includes his actions as well. As this is still a work in progress, I have not exactly thought out where to go from here. Perhaps some more thought will help to clear up whether I should continue on this topic at all. Oh well.


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