Commonplace Book: Wise Words, Lanchester on Bullshit vs. Nonsense

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 9.04.24 AMReading Lanchester’s How to Speak Money, a great read: droll, useful, and angry (in a flippant British way). Here’s his entry on the difference between “bullshit” and “nonsense” as a taster. The whole book well worth dipping into.

bullshit versus nonsense
In Kingsley Amis’s novel The Old Devils there is a brief but very thought-provoking speech by Peter Thomas, one of the book’s main characters. His friend has just given a talk about how the poet Brydan, based on
Dylan Thomas, didn’t speak a word of Welsh but how the presence of Welsh was nonetheless very important as a subliminal presence in his work. In the pub afterwards, Peter picks him up on what he’s said.

“I want to get this over to you while I remember and before I have too many drinks. When somebody tells you in Welsh that the cat sat on the mat you won’t be able to make out what he saying unless you know the Welsh for cat and sat and mat. Well, he can draw you a picture. Otherwise it’s just gibberish.”

The friend objects, but Peter presses on with his point:

“The point is it’s unnecessary. They’ll be just as pleased to hear how Brydan wrote English with the fire and passion and the spirit of this, that and the bloody other only possible to a true or real or whatever-you-please Welshman, which if it means anything is debatable to say the least, but whatever it is it’s only bullshit, not nonsense. Stick to bullshit and were all in the clear.

And that, for all the lightness of the context, is a very important distinction. Bullshit and nonsense are different. Bullshit is all around us; the term implies exaggeration, rhetoric, and a mild kind of untoxic falsity. It suggests something is false but not malign. Every time someone tries to sell somebody something, a degree of bullshit is usually involved. Some words are more or less guaranteed to be bullshit: “executive,” for instance, is, used as an adjective, pure bullshit– executive chef, executive apartments, executive decision. “Exclusive” is bullshit, not least because it is used mostly about places that are open to the public, like restaurants and hotels. But the damage done by bullshit is usually fairly mild, and it can even be, if not exactly benign, then so much part of the normal process of selling that it is all just part of the dance. There’s a Big Issue seller near where I live who holds out a copy with the line “last one”; when he sells it, he waits for the customer to walk away, then reaches into his bag and pulls out another “last one.” That is bullshit, and relatively harmless–I say “relatively” rather than “wholly” because once you fallen for the line, and then seen through it, it tends to diminish your trust in Big Issue sellers. The “hype cycle” around new inventions involves in a near-ritualized early period of puffing, boosterism, and bullshit: as John Perry Barlow, song writer for the Grateful Dead, once brilliantly put it, “bullshit is the grease for the skids on which we ride into the future.” (I like that line because it is both an example of bullshit and a great explanation of it.) There is an enormous amount of bullshit in the world of money.

Nonsense is different. It’s worse. It consists of things that are actively false, and at its worst of things that are not just not true but can’t possibly be true. It is rarer than bullshit but much more toxic, and it is the difference between someone exaggerating a bit because he’s trying to sell you something and someone who is consciously lying to you, or is so far out of touch with reality that he doesn’t know he’s lying. In the world of money, the most recent and glaring example of nonsense was in the run-up to the credit crunch, in which broad sectors of banks and investors convinced themselves that they had invented a new category of financial instrument that guaranteed high rates of return with no risk. Since it is a fundamental axiom of investment that risk is correlated with return–that you can’t make higher rates of return without taking on higher levels of risk–this is like claiming to have invented an antigravity device, or a perpetual motion machine. As the British investor John Templeton once said, “The four most expensive words in the English language are ‘this time it’s different.’” In everything to do with money, and in many other areas too, it’s important to keep an eye out for those moments that are not just (relatively) harmless bullshit but the much more actively dangerous nonsense.


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