In this episode of the RavenCast, Adam Ericksen talks with Dr. Steven McKenna about the Trump administration’s political rhetoric, truth, and mimetic theory. Dr. McKenna is Professor of Rhetoric and Communications at Catholic University in Washington DC. Warning – the concept of “bullshit” is explored in this episode. Watch the video or read the transcription below. You can listen to the MP3 below. Never miss an episode by subscribing to the RavenCast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, or Podbean.
Transcription (begins about 1 minute 45 seconds into the recorded conversation)
Steve: Rhetoric is a fantastic toolbox to think about politics, culture, literature. It’s never-ending. I like to say that rhetoric was the first disciplinary department. It covers everything.
Adam: I’m glad that it covers everything because I wanted to bring you in to discuss politics. What does rhetoric have to do with politics?
Steve: It’s the main tool of politics. You have that and you have violence. And when you are using violence you have pretty much exhausted the rhetoric. The idea that rhetoric was a replacement for violence goes back to some of the earliest writings we have in the West. Suppositional writings by Cicero and Quintillion about how people started trying to persuade one another. Their idea was that it came out as a kind of replacement for the other option, which was physical force and violence.
So that’s also how I came to the Girardian wheelhouse. That’s part of my interest in this.
Adam: What does Girard have to offer to this conversation?
Steve: Well, a lot of things. For me, I read Girard for quite a while and thought, well that’s all interesting and nice, but I’m a language person and it’s bearing on literature is very important but there wasn’t a lot on language theory in Girard’s work. So at first I did some shrugging as to how I could use it. The work of Eric Gans picks up in some useful ways.
But I was working on a project that had to do with propaganda. And I was interested in studying modern propaganda. I was fascinated that all of the contemporary modern propaganda theory as a discipline emerged after World War II in concert with the growth of communications as a discipline. I was fascinated that all of the people studying propaganda had little grounding in rhetoric. They were sort of reinventing the theoretical wheel.
Meanwhile, a lot of people working in the field of the history of rhetoric felt like propaganda was something to be studied in the social sciences empirically, but we’re not very interested in it.
So, I was working on bridging these things, and that’s when the rubber hit the road for me with Girard. He helped me get a very refined understand of the nature of scapegoating. As they say, that’s all she wrote.
Adam: Well last time we talked on the RavenCast about a year ago, we talked about truth and you brought up the topic of bullshit. Which is always fun to talk about.
Steve: It’s one of my favorite topics. As a rhetorician I’m licensed … Last year I did a seminar on lies, alternative facts, and bullshit. I was very happy to get the term bullshit in the university catalog. It’s there forever now. But it is a specific term of ours that has been associated with the work of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who wrote a little essay On Bullshit that circulated for many years. You can now buy it as a book.
The essential idea of bullshit is that it’s distinct from lying. The distinction is that the liar is someone who knows the truth and decides to intentionally produce an alternative thing and call it truth. So the liar, in an odd way, knows the truth. You have to know the truth to lie. The curious thing about that is that every lie in that regard pays a backhanded compliment to the truth. That’s the existential power of truth and empirical fact.
So even the liar has his or her own twisted regard for the truth. Bullshit is distinct according to Frankfurt, and it’s been amply cited for a long time, the bullshitter is someone who doesn’t have a regard for the truth. It may be lying, or feel like lying to some people, but the point is that the bullshitter doesn’t feel any anchoring to the truth or any respect for it.
And so there is a lot of harmless bullshit. Frankfurt talks about a bullshit session where people are just telling fishing stories or something, where obviously it can be harmless. But in the long run, a culture of bullshit is a very pathological one because it’s one where there is no such thing as a lie anymore, and therefore there is no such thing as a truth. And so it’s been regularly cited as quite relevant to our political moment.
Adam: Well, I wanted to bring you on because of our political moment, in part because I’m trying to navigate my way through the bullshit, and I’m having all kinds of problems because, as you say, it’s in our political moment. But I don’t know what to do about it. And I don’t know if it’s worth calling it out. And I don’t know if calling it out only makes it worse. And we’re in this matrix where I don’t know what the truth is anymore.
Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post wrote an article titled, “Trump Subverts Our Democracy with His Lies.” Robinson says this is as bad as an impeachable offense. So he’s calling for impeachment because of the lies. Then there are other people who support him who just say, “Don’t take what he says literally.” And hey, I’m partisan, but I’m trying to navigate my way through this in the most truthful way I can. But I’d like for you to take the blinders off my eyes for me…
Steve: I think you are seeing things pretty well, in a way. I feel your anxiousness about it. The thing about bullshit, or a culture that has no regard for the truth anymore, is the thing that’s most disturbing about Trump. It’s not so much that he lies. He’s made a career of it. His whole personal mythology and all of that. And it seems like he’s been on a real run lately with the Khashoggi murder.
But it’s not so much that he lies, it’s that his supporters, don’t seem to mind. And they may even think that it shows once again how powerful that he is. That he’s brutally honest. So he calls it like he sees it. It might be a bit Machiavellian, but that’s all well and good with some people.
The thing about a culture of bullshit like that with real disregard for the truth is that you can’t navigate it. You can’t paddle your canoe through bullshit.
Eugene Robinson’s piece was one of hundreds of pieces. The New York Times keeps a running tab of the daily untruths. It’s not confined to Trump, of course, but he seems to be setting the paradigm. But there are lots of these pieces that enumerate the lies and untruths and alternative facts in kind of scandalized outrage and finger wagging and all of that.
It’s a good question as to whether outrage and finger pointing are worth it. I think it is worth it, although there are hazards to be involved in the debunking business. To some extent, you are playing the game. There are multiple points to political lies. They are about shifting blame, identifying scapegoats, consolidating forms of political unity.
But in a media environment like ours, they are also about taking up oxygen. They are these shiny objects that get tossed on the floor in front of the journalist, and they all pick them up and say, “Hey, look at this! This one is really a whopper.”
So, as a diversionary tactic and a way of controlling media attention, the persistent lying is a very, sadly, functional strategy. To the extent that you spend your time debunking them, one after another, you are playing the game. And to the extent that you let yourself become too scandalized by it, you know, the debunkers often are like mimetic doubles of the ones that they are debunking.
This is an important theme in conspiracy theory, which I’m teaching right now. Chris Flemming and Emma Jane have a wonderful book titled, Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid. It’s the last word on conspiracy theory. One of the great points they make in the book is the way in which the culture of debunking operates as a rival to the liar and can fall into its own traps of self-righteousness that are certainly hazardous.
So, I don’t know if I can take your blinders off. You are right to be disoriented right now. Conspiracy theories can really thrive in a culture of lying and bullshit. But one of the explanatory concepts is called “agency panic.” It’s associated with a guy named Timothy Melley.
There’s a sociological concept called “moral panic.” Those are moments when there is an alarming new thing and a huge amount of attention to it that is disproportionate to the threat it actually causes. We have our own versions of it. MS-13 is a great example. It’s not that MS-13 isn’t bad, but they aren’t coming through my window.
Melley takes this idea of moral panic and he shifts it to talk about agency panic. And right now I think it’s a useful term. I think it’s a bit of what you are feeling. It’s this sense that if we can’t rely on the truth and can’t point to facts that will anchor us and orient us so that we can do the political things we need to do, then it leaves us completely incapacitated in a democracy.
So we feel agency panic. I’ve lost my agency here. I don’t have the ability to control my environment. There’s no happy narrative I can tell to myself to make sense of day to day life. All I can do is watch the news all day and my eyes get bigger and I feel paralyzed.
Lots of people are feeling this way and it’s aggravated in a media environment like ours where there is this firehose of information coming at you all the time. So in the absence of debilitated agency, that’s one of the reasons people go to conspiracy theories. It becomes as “compensatory epistemology.” It becomes, “well, I can’t stand the Clintons. They have been involved in all of these conspiracies, but the real explanation is that they are shape-shifting lizards” or something like that. It becomes a way of claiming some kind of agency.
Now, it’s a complete simulacrum of reality, but that’s part of the psychology of it. That certainly seems to be alive in our culture. It’s like with the Kavanaugh hearings. People are saying the whole thing is a conspiracy from twelve years ago. That’s a compensatory explanation from people who just don’t want to believe what is under their noses.
You have Trump talking about MsB’s claim that Khashoggi’s murder was committed by rogue killers. That’s an MS-13 like explanation for this brutal killing.
Adam: Early this week I was feeling agency panic! I was swirling in almost a depression about truth and bullshit and feeling like there was nothing I could do. But I was listening to some show, and someone said that this is exactly how the powers and principalities work. They want you to feel agency panic. They want you to feel like you are defeated and your vote doesn’t matter because you are just one among many. So you have no agency in this. And so I listened to that and I thought, “Damn, if that’s their strategy, I’m not going to fall for that!”
Steve: Right! Your problem is that you feel this agency panic, but you aren’t willing to drink the Kool-Aid. There’s my free therapy for you today.
Adam: Thank you! I needed that. Is that the answer to agency panic? To flip it upside down?
Steve: Well, I think the theological answer is hope. You have to hope that the better angels of our nature will resume control, to the extent that they ever have. And that our political foundations, although they have been damaged a lot in the last couple of years, they are much stronger than the moment we are going through.
There has to be some hope. And my way of dealing with it is through some empirical detachment and realizing what’s important. Otherwise you would just be in this state all the time.
I think it is potentially psychologically damaging for some people. I was talking with my student about conspiracy theory and asked, “Why would the Trump supporters simply give a pass to the president when he says, ‘Well I never said that.’ but someone can roll tape of him saying exactly that?” And I think it points to a kind of schizophrenic state. They know he’s lying, or they know that they can watch film of him denying he said something he clearly said, the only way to maintain the cognitive dissonance that this demands is to draw a line down the middle of your head and it requires nearly a schizophrenic state that isn’t healthy.
So you have to keep reminding yourself of the facts and educating yourself. I also find satire really useful. Satire is propaganda’s worst enemy. Satire’s main discursive mode is through irony. The best example was Stephen Colbert when he was “Stephen.” We knew that things he was saying were the exact opposite of what he meant.
The important thing about satire is that it constantly reminds us that meanings are in flux. And that meanings are based on differences. They are not based on the hard referential logic that propagandist want to operate by. Like when Goebbels referred to Jews as vermin, it’s a metaphor, but it’s a dead metaphor as far as Nazis were concerned.
This points to how a lot of propaganda has a sort of earnestness about it. There might be a little joking here and there, but when Trump tells his jokes at his rallies, everyone laughs, but he isn’t really joking.
I find satire reassuring. It means precisely because language is a metaphorical system, we aren’t trapped by it. We can find our way around propagandistic abuses of the truth. That’s one way out of bullshit. I recommend still watching Colbert. His opening is a dose of sanity. And I like Trevor Noah a lot. He’s very meta. I think he’s completely conscious of the way that satire is playing this meaning game that gives us access back to meaning. Because he will move between these things. Like when he was talking the other day about the real brazenness of Trump’s approach to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, which is to say he can’t do anything about Saudi Arabia because we are financially attached to them. He said something like, “I’ve got to hand it to Trump because he’s honest here. He wears his moral corruption on his sleeve.”
So you have these moments where the laughter breaks and you can tell, “Oh yeah, he is wearing his moral corruption on his sleeve. It’s not just another passable lie.” You get to that though, because you have been dosed with satire and have been reminded how meaning really works.
Adam: Is that one of the hopeful things during the Trump presidency that he wears his moral corruption on his sleeve? He doesn’t hide it, whereas previous presidents have hidden their moral corruption so well?
Steve: Well, I would say there’s a false equivalency there between Trump’s moral corruption and the moral corruption of all other presidents. But I do think that in a backhanded way there is a kind of service that has been done by Trump. This isn’t an original thought, but he isn’t the problem; he’s a symptom of the problem. He’s just particularly good at channeling it and understanding our weaknesses. Our proclivities to be scandalized and then fall into scapegoating. His whole stance on immigrants that began on day one is premised on that. So in a certain way he has done us a favor by yanking the band-aids off. He shows us our own woundedness and our own worst proclivities.
When you think about the alt-right and the rise of a quasi-sanitized white nationalism, which is white supremacy, we were horrified when we saw what happened at Charlottesville, but I also thought that these guys, ideas, thoughts were always here. There’s something good about it being out in the open.
Adam: Yes, in the town down the street from me, there have all kinds of Nazi propaganda flyers going up at schools and synagogues. Portland hasn’t always had the best history when it comes to white supremacy. It’s a sin we need to continue to fight against, but it’s been intensified during the last few years.
Steve: Right. I recently saw “Black Klansman.” We could do a whole show on that. I highly recommend it.
Adam: Great! Let’s talk about that movie next time. Thank you for being here, Steve. Every time I talk with you I feel like I’m going to be okay.
Steve: Good! I think you will be. And we all will be. But we have to roll up our sleeves and we have work to do. You have to vote. If people feel too much agency panic, they won’t vote. So I will be voting in the midterms.
Adam: So will I, my friend! Thanks for being here.
Steve: You are welcome. Thank you for having me.