A New Kind of Hat Trick

One contemporary Chinese philosopher says that Western philosophy searches for The Truth but Chinese philosophy searches for The Way. That is a nice four-word distinction, and Americans whose only acquaintance with Confucius is through “Confucius say” jokes would find a lot to ponder by looking through the Analects. For example, the story goes[1] that a royal emissary asked Confucius what was the first thing a ruler must do. His reply: “What is necessary is to make sure that everything is called by its proper name[2].” He then went on to expound a chain of causation arising from the failure to do so, whose final dire but perhaps hyperbolic effect is that “the people do not know how to move hand or foot.”

Incapacitation by bad language is of course one of the main things Orwell warned against in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He argued further[3] that bad language makes bad politics—or was it the other way around? His interest in the problem of rotten language was that of his “ordinary persona,” who is plain-thinking, plain-spoken, and practical.

Another take on the problem of rotten language is more strictly philosophical. I refer to Harry Frankfurt’s[4] wonderful little book On Bullshit. Its thesis is that unlike the “pure” liar, who cares enough for the truth to go against it deliberately, the BSer is indifferent to truth, particularly if it makes him look bad, rocks his boat, or loses him money. Instead, the BSer simply says what will protect him, advance him, or promote things in which he has a stake, regardless of their truth or falsity. Frankfurt advances a careful argument culminating[5] in the claim that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

The British came up with a nice term for someone who achieves three of some feat: a “hat trick.” Well,  Arne Duncan and his RAce to the Top (RAT) have outdone themselves and scored a baloney hat trick. In it, things are not called by their proper names, bad politics gives rise to bad language (and the other way around), and the old barnyard epithet becomes a precise description.


[1] Analects, 13.3

[2] The Chinese word zhengming is sometimes translated as “rectification of names,” but that does not work very well in English.

[3] In “Politics and the English Language”

[4] Frankfurt is Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at the Institute for advanced Studies, Princeton.

[5] p. 61

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