Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Not all bullshit is smarm

Bullshit season is back, right on cue. A year ago my colleagues and I sent out a pile of hard-cover copies of Harry Frankfurt's masterful "On Bullshit" essay in place of Christmas cards. It was a nod to the shared experience of having to contend with so much bullshit in our professional lives.

And now Tom Socca's new essay On Smarm is set to play a similar role this year. Socca is no Ivy League philosopher but what he might lack in rigour is repaid through a wealth of examples. And he does have a classification system in there that looks a bit like this (I think). 

Bullshitters in the Harry Frankfurt sense are people who are simply trying to make an impression and have no regard for the actual truth. Socca regards smarm as a type of bullshit because it involves 'moral and ethical misdirection', but it does so in a uniquely greasy way that is
"unctuous or flattering, or smug. Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss..."
If someone triggers your bullshit detector, you need to decide how to react. Socca suggests any response that challenges, or even just overtly notes the existence of the bullshit, is direct enough to be labelled snark. Smarm is a passive form of aggression, and your options are to either call it out (which is snark), or allow the oily smarm to spew forth and then just take a shower later.

This all rings true for me, and it reminds me of a twitcident from last month. It started with an observation that the TPP could kill entire sectors of NZ's economy, so those planning to ratify it in secret had better know a lot about whether and where that is a risk. Federated Farmers (who hope to benefit from the TPP) replied with this tweet:
an asteroid may also wipe out all life too, or as FDR put it, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" 
What is this saying? "oh, you poor misguided fools, don't fret or oppose or criticise; rest your fevered imaginations, for everything about the TPP will be covered over with a gloss so beautiful you won't even notice its a bit oily".

That's pure smarm. Its also self-serving and devoid of any actual argument. But if you call it out (as I did) then umbrage will be taken, and you will be called snarky or something similar. Because you went negative, which broke the smarm spell, and negative is bad mkay?

So there we have it, a new concept for the new year, and perhaps something of a challenge also. Next time you hear someone being brave enough to call bullshit, maybe try engaging them on the subject of whether its just ordinary bullshit or actual smarm.

Update: new wonkblog interview with Socca


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