Bullshit. I just love that word.
My first literal encounter with bullshit was when I was about 10 years old. As a child I would frequently go fishing with my dad and uncle to various lakes around Southern Cal. On one particular expedition to Lake Piru the fish were not biting so I decided to take a walk. Lo and behold on this walk I discovered my first real true-to-life pile of real bullshit: A close encounter of the bullshit kind.
I gazed in youthful awe at its tremendous girth. Never a child to back away from experiencing anything, it was not enough to look at the big steamy pile of excrement, I needed to, ah, eh, hmmm, find out more. I got close enough to smell it…no odor. Its appearance intrigued me so I decided to lift it off the ground ever so gently. Even at the tender age of 10 I had heard of cow chipping contests, in which participants tossed bullshit for distance, so, appeased by its odorless presence and apparent lack of sticky content, I picked it up. That is when I realized the pinpoint accuracy of the term in the cultural conversation—though large and intimidating, it was an odorless, nearly weightless, very dry piece of nothing—a pile of digested grass.
Hence, bullshit. Bullshit is an argument, talk, or piece of information used for intimidation/entertainment of any variety, designed to strike fear, compliance or enticement into its audience. In reality, this type of information is bullshit… it means nothing, has no inherent value and sounds impressive though has no substance at all. Author Neil Postman calls it “inert information.”
Our culture is full of it.
Recently, a student of mine, Odos, elected to use a very unique presentation aid for his claim which argued against my assertion that most information we receive on any given day is bullshit; living next to a cow farm he brought in a literal pile of fresh and uncorrupted bullshit. His presentation was one that has forever changed my mind on the concept. His argument brought me in tension. He asserted that bullshit does not exist independently on its own as bullshit, rather it is up to each of us to determine what is bullshit in our lives and what is not.
In class I would contend, for example, that the latest Lindsey Lohan’s brush with the law, Kim Kardashian’s ass, or even a crime in our city was bullshit information—designed to entice and titillate, without any real intrinsic value—leading to no meaningful action. However, Odos made the claim that all of that information COULD be relevant if we choose it to be. We could try to set up an intervention with Lindsey, help with Kim’s ass woes or commit to investigate and solve the crime in our city—our decision. A stretch to be sure, though I get it. Nice. Very nice.
He proudly pointed to his huge pile of shit resting comfortably on the front table and stated that we could call that thing bullshit if we choose OR we could plant some seeds in it and a beautiful flower could spring forth and call it life, our choice. I love students who argue with me. I learn so much.
Odos gets it. His point is quite valid and he now has the filter to begin the process of recognizing what is bullshit and what is not, even if the bullshit is different for different people. We cannot plant flowers and give life to all the information we receive on a daily basis, though we must be able to toss aside and eliminate that which is bullshit in our particular daily life between that which is relevant, meaningful and life-giving—while making wise and rational decisions accordingly.
I never really thought my walk that morning back in 1973 in a cow pasture would add up to much… in fact, I though it was just bullshit at the time.
Silly me. Wrong again.