August 1, 2016

I just heard CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in a conversation with Wolf Blitzer, refer to Donald Trump as a “bullshit artist.”

This surprise usage heats up the language wars that have become so prominent in the coverage of this presidential campaign. What’s next, a canny analysis of how one of the candidates “f-ed up” in this debate?

This is not about washing out Zakaria’s mouth with soap. There is much to be said for straight talk, especially in an election that has seen one misstatement after another. But there has existed for a long time, even among the saltiest reporters, a tradition of language decorum in public that is getting harder and harder to sustain.

Let’s view the phrase in context. Trump had just been quoted trying to clarify his statements about Russia and the Crimea. Here’s Zakaria:

Well, there is a pattern here Wolf, every time it is demonstrated that Donald Trump is plainly ignorant about some basic public policy issues, some well-known fact, he comes back with a certain bravado and tries to explain it away with a tweet or statement. He did it on Brexit, he did it on the nuclear triad, he did it on how U.S. debt markets work, he thought that Tim Kaine was the governor of New Jersey, and now with this.

And it is sort of amusing to watch: How he is going to pull it off this time? What is he going to argue? Usually he adds that the press hates him. But there is a term for this kind of thing. This is the mode of a bullshit artist. And it’s sometimes amusing, it’s entertaining, if the guy is trying to sell you a condo or a car, but for a president of the United States, it is deeply worrying.”

Bullshit artist. It was one of my dad’s favorite expressions, usually pointed at a windbag on TV or a blowhard down the street. That it should be uttered in a standard news interview by an elegant commentator on CNN should have the late comedian George Carlin choking somewhere in heaven on his jumbo shrimp.

In one sense, the use of “bullshit” in this setting might be seen as yet another contamination of political speech, Trump’s rhetoric acting like some giant vortex, flushing everything and everyone down with it. (Remember the polite Marco Rubio talking about his “hands?”) But not so fast. Maybe this is not about the degradation of language, but the elevation of “bullshit” as a term of art. I have the evidence before me.

The first is a tiny volume printed by Princeton University Press with the title “On bullshit,” by Harry G. Frankfurt. The opening paragraph of the 2005 work will suffice:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

I beg your pardon, professor? I will have you know that one of the patrons of journalistic writing, none other than Ernest Hemingway, preached long ago that every writer had a moral duty to develop “a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

In a brand new book, writer Josh Bernoff offers advice on “Writing Without Bullshit,” a tome designed to “Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean.”

In a first chapter, titled “Transcend bullshit,” Bernoff argues:

The tide of bullshit is rising.

“Your email inbox is full of irrelevant, poorly written crap. Your boss talks in jargon and clichés. The websites you read are impenetrable and incomprehensible. Bullshit is a burden on all of us, keeping us from getting useful work done.”

I am feeling some tension here. From Frankfurt and Bernoff, we get a sense that “bullshit” is a dysphemism (opposite of euphemism) for jargon, that is, for inflated academic or bureaucratic language.

But the use of the word “bullshit” is the antidote, a way of saying that the emperor, or in the case of Mr. Trump, the presumptive emperor, has no clothes.

As the election gets closer, American journalists will likely be faced with many of the same misstatements Zakaria called out earlier today. So, let’s hear from you, journalists: To bullshit or not to bullshit? That is the question.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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