It takes one to know one: Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection

After explaining that ‘Eichmannism’ is “that form of bullshit which accepts as its starting and ending point official definitions, rules, and categories without regard for the realities of particular situations,” Neil Postman adds:

“One final point about Eichmannism, and I would like to state it as Postman’s First Law – so perhaps you will want to write this down: “Everyone is potentially somebody else’s Eichmann. So be careful.” Postman’s Second Law is: “Everyone is already somebody else’s Eichmann. You weren’t careful enough.””

This extract from Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection* – a paper delivered at the National Convention for the Teachers of English, Washington D C in 1969 – is typical Postman. In fact, Eichmannism represents one of many forms of bullshit. Others he suggests include:

  • Pomposity – the use of “fancy titles, words, phrases, and sentences,” usually employed to hide insufficiencies
  • Fanaticism – a malignant form of bullshit that at its worse is manifest as bigotry
  • Inanity – public utterances from “people whose opinions would otherwise not be solicited,” increasingly amplified through the development of mass media
  • Superstition – “a belief, usually expressed in authoritative terms for which there is no factual or scientific basis”
  • Earthiness – the assumption that “by using words like crap and shit,” one is making more sense

“What,” asks Postman, “can be done about all this bullshit?” In developing the process of ‘crap-detecting’ – a phrase borrowed from Ernest Hemingway – Postman emphasises art over technique.

Fundamentally, he sees crap-detecting as a “set of attitudes toward the function of human communication: which is to say, the function of human relationships.” Not that language isn’t important. Indeed, according to Postman, it’s the most precious thing we have. But communication is located within social and discursive practices, with deeply embedded and profound hidden agendas.

His point is that crap detecting – or critical thinking if you prefer – is more than developing a set of skills or literacies, but is embedded in the values and belief systems of each of us. “If you want to teach the art of crap-detecting,” Postman suggests, “you must help students become aware of their values.” After all, as his ‘Third Law’ states:

“At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself.”

* There appear to be a number of different versions of the text online, several of which seem to be truncated. I’m assuming the longest is the most authentic, though I may be talking crap.

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2 Responses to “It takes one to know one: Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection”

  1. Reflecting on #RP2Nott | PhD Blog (dot) Net Says:

    […] Using broad terms are useful starting points though not always workable. For example, in the morning session I helped facilitate at #RP2Nott one table interpreted data collection as general academic information sourcing rather than in the narrower methodological sense. So, terms like collecting stuff, exploring ideas, explaining things etc. are useful to cut through the bullshit. […]

  2. Neil Postman: Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection | Delightful & Distinctive COLRS Says:

    […] Reading: PhD blog, Aug […]

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