Once upon a time, a lecture changed my life. It would be nice to say this was because it provided an inspiring insight into a particular subject – and in a way it did, although not the subject I was there to study.
I don’t remember a thing the academic said. I only remember the boys.
As soon as "Any questions?" sounded, every posh male hand was aloft. Words poured out of those boys. They referred with casual ease to texts and figures I'd never heard of. Their confidence was blinding. They spoke as if they were self-evidently the equals of the professional who had come to instruct them.
My class sat silent, dazed. I began to panic.
Bullshit or the real thing?
I was applying for Oxford. If this was what it took, I didn’t have a hope. I'd thought I was clever – but perhaps I wasn’t. Perhaps this was what the real thing looked like.
And then, one boy – to whom I will always be grateful – said something about Catherine the Great.
The lecture was on Aristophanes.
I didn’t know anything about Catherine the Great. But what could she possibly have to do with Aristophanes? I examined the question from every angle I could think of and arrived at the same resounding, life-changing answer: NOTHING.
The boy was perfectly at ease. He radiated the same cultured, serene self-confidence as every other boy. And yet he did not know what he was talking about. I looked in wonder from him to his classmates and I thought, "....Ohh. It's just bullshit."
They weren't cleverer. They were barely even better informed. They had, sort of, a bigger collection of references, but the game wasn't "know most" and certainly not "learn most". It was "create the most verbal snow".
And, friends, I’m afraid my next thought was this: "Well, I can do that."
I went ahead and got into Oxford. And if I hadn’t learned how to bullshit already, I sure did there. And now I want to teach you – and your pupils – how to bullshit like a public schoolboy.
This may seem deeply irresponsible. However, there’s Good Bullshit and Bad Bullshit. By empowering you to practise Good Bullshit, I hope to help you to protect yourselves, your pupils and just maybe your political institutions, from Bad Bullshit.
But why should your pupils learn to bullshit? Because those who lack the ability to bullshit – which disproportionately means people who lack privilege – lose out to those who do.
Non-Bullshitters hover awkwardly on the edges of an interesting conversation and assume they have nothing to contribute. They see an attractive job opportunity and believe the list of requirements is set in stone. They are asked directly for their thoughts on their pet topic and reply, “I’m not an expert.”
Bullshit is a blunt instrument wielded against imposter syndrome. All Bullshitters start from the assumption that what they have to say is worth hearing. They all use words, facts and humour to disguise vulnerabilities, impress people and make connections.
Bullshitters don’t overthink. They just start talking. They don’t compare themselves to world experts – they compare themselves to people who don’t know anything about a subject at all.
But the Bad Bullshitter is characterised by indifference to the subject at hand. It is only relevant insofar as it helps the Bad Bullshitter achieve more status, more attention, more money.
The Good Bullshitter just wants to get into the conversation. Once there, they enjoy the challenge of maintaining a foothold. They hope to come across as witty and well-informed, but because they are genuinely interested, they are still happy to listen and learn from others.
The Bad Bullshitter wants to win the conversation. They seek to exhaust and mystify everyone else, and eventually bulldoze their way to undeserved authority.
The Good Bullshitter would never claim to have held jobs they didn’t, but they do put down skills on their job application that they don’t yet have…but will have by the time they get the interview. “I can use that software!” they write on their CV, downloading a free trial and firing up a YouTube tutorial. When asked, they will tell the truth, but they will phrase it like this: “I decided to teach myself new skills to get the role I want!”
The rules of bullshit
These, therefore, are the basic rules of bullshit:
- The first and most fundamental rule is: do not disqualify yourself. Common knowledge in your field may be new and exciting outside it. If you find yourself in unfamiliar intellectual territory, don’t discount your existing experience as useless.
- Observation and insight are often as useful as prior knowledge. The question you’ve just thought of may not be unique in the world, but if it’s unique in the room, that’s still valuable.
- Try to be the one to make what you think is the all-too-obvious point. It’ll often turn out it wasn’t obvious to everyone else.
- Don’t underestimate how much you can learn in a short period of time. If you know a little more than most people today, you could know far more than most people by the end of the week.
Of course, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to substitute a more neutral word for Good Bullshit, such as “confidence”, or “articulacy.” But these terms suggest a state of being rather than an action or a skill. You can’t always summon confidence at will, but once you’ve got the knack, it’s not hard to count on your ability to bullshit.
But, before you start teaching your pupils to bullshit, I want you to swear an oath: “I [name] will shun the path of the Bad Bullshitter. I will use my bullshit to participate, not to dominate. To uplift, not to oppress. I will not talk over those untrained in the art of bullshit, nor those whose lived experience of a subject exceeds my own. Above all, I will remember that a time always comes when even the best bullshitter has to actually do the reading.”
Swear this, as much for your own sake as everyone else’s.
Because, although it may take a very long time – it may even fail to happen until you have gained the highest office in the land – in the end, the Bad Bullshitter always gets found out.
Sophia McDougall is the author of the children's books Mars Evacuees and Space Hostages, and of the Romanitas trilogy for adults. She tweets as @McDougallSophia