The art and craft of bullshit shapes our lives more than we know, writes Tainui Stephens.
I was 15 and learning how to drive. One of my mum’s boarders, Frank, took me for a spin every weekend when we took the rubbish to the tip. He was a cool guy and I paid attention to his advice.
I laughed at first when he told me that his balls were a kind of radar detector. If he felt his scrotum getting tight, he knew that a traffic cop was parked up ahead. Then he said: “Slow down, there’s a cop around this corner.” Sure enough, there was the officer with the microwave radar checking our speed. There’s no way Frank could’ve seen him.
Over several weeks, Frank and his magic crotch identified hidden cops everywhere. My disbelief turned to surprise, and then deep respect. It took me longer than I care to admit to understand what the flashing headlights of oncoming cars meant.
Other forms of bullshit aren’t such harmless nonsense. As kids, we watched the lies our parents told each other blossom into delusional bullshit that tore us all apart. That’s the thing about bullshit. At its core is something false. But the bullshitter may not know that they’re lying, because they believe they’re telling the truth.
In 1982, I was working at the Race Relations Office in Wellington and dealt with a complaint about a landlord in Porirua accused of discriminating against a Pasifika family.
I visited her home and knocked on the door. She was elderly and spoke to me through a window. I identified myself and explained the allegation. She let me in reluctantly.
Her house was tidy and distinguished only by stacks of newspapers in the dining room. Mostly rags like Truth and the Sunday News. She admitted that she did indeed own a house for lease, and she did indeed refuse to rent it to a Pasifika family. When I asked her why, she pointed to the pile of newspapers and said:
“Because I read the news and I know that Maoris and Islanders can’t be trusted. They’ll run away without paying the rent, or have a hangi in the living room! It’s my house and my right to choose who lives in it.”
She was honest about her prejudice. She also told me she very rarely left her home. She had a friend who delivered the shopping. Her lawyer collected the rent.
It occurred to me that this was the first person I’d ever met who was healthy and sane in every way, but whose view of the world was entirely informed by the media. The sum of the biased tabloid, talkback and television BS she consumed had polluted her view of the country she lived in. She had the power to make racist decisions about other people’s lives — and did so.
She was just like the millions of people who today subscribe to the worst of us online.
Like the “If it bleeds, it leads” headlines of yesteryear, most inhabitants of cyberspace are drawn to clickbait and conflict. The greatest generator of profits online comes from the spread of lies. Lucrative disinformation has turned bullshit into a weapon of mass destruction.
Whole populations have accepted or been forced to accept the lies of bad faith leaders. The genocide of the Rohingya by the Burmese military, the suppression of Tibet by China, the US-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, and now Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine reveal malevolent political bullshit with tragic consequences.
While we’re distant from wars overseas, or even protests here at home, we get the news, the tweets, the grams, the podcasts. Our challenge is to sort out the truth from the bullshit. To develop your own bullshit detector takes time — and personal experience.
Later in that same year of 1982, we received a complaint from an Egyptian businessman living in Auckland. Gamal was furious about a newspaper article outlining traditional Middle Eastern customs as a guide for tourists.
The article was pretty gross. It presented the Middle East as a place of superstition and ignorance. The newspaper admitted the error and printed a legitimate guide that Gamal and I wrote. We turned that small victory into the beginnings of a book on immigrants to New Zealand.
For a few months, Gamal and I would meet every now and then and compare notes about material for the book. He was a serious and charming guy and started to become a family friend. The last time I saw him, he’d invited me to drinks at the Travelodge on the Auckland waterfront. We got mildly drunk. Rather than drive back home to Manurewa, I crashed in his room. In the morning, we parted ways with a promise to catch up again soon.
Two days later, I found out through the radio news that Gamal wasn’t who he said he was. His real name was George. After we’d said goodbye, he’d driven straight to a small town in Taranaki where he ended up stabbing his wife’s brother to death. I was stunned at my sudden lesson in human nature. My own bullshit detector was seriously stuffed.
Bullshit at a distance is easy to see. But when it’s close, like your own flatulence, you don’t notice it.
All social media platforms satisfy the modern compulsion to express our opinions. Our personal production of bullshit is stimulated whenever the need to express a point of view exceeds our command of the relevant facts. Face-saving bullshit that hides our personal ignorance stays away from both lies and truth. The former because you don’t want to be caught out, and the latter because you don’t know it. That nexus between fact and fiction is the stage for the bullshit artist.
The most consequential bullshit artist right now is Donald Trump. The 45th US president is neither the first nor the last despicable person to run a country. But thanks to America’s principles of freedom of speech and the global reach of its technology and culture, he’s become the most visible.
Trump relishes being the most accomplished liar on the world stage — but it’s his bullshit that is most pernicious. He uses bluff and bluster, diversion and disguise, and a distaste for humanity to erase the possibility that truth exists.
Uniquely at this time in history, the world is united through common adversity. Global concerns about the pandemic and climate change have coincided with overwhelming distrust for politicians, their bureaucracies and the media. Societies everywhere grapple with rising inequality and changing demographics. The frustrations of their citizens are most apparent online.
Part of Trump’s line of bullshit is to use personal grievance as a political weapon. He has no desire to create a common political space with policies for everyone. He inflames the rage of those who can’t or won’t cope with a changing world. He fought for, and got, a thoroughly divided America. Trumpism’s ideology of disdain for expertise and contempt for facts has been exported to other countries, including our own.
Current tactics of the anti-Covid, pro-freedom protesters around New Zealand include allegations that we’ve never been so divided as a nation. That’s bullshit. The 1981 Springbok tour truly divided us. The protest actions against apartheid in South Africa were also about racism at home. They became an outlet for community anger about stolen Māori land, the harassment and deportation of Pasifika “overstayers”, and the machismo of our sports culture. Huge rivers of protesters were balanced by full stadiums at every Springbok game. It was a traumatic, violent time.
The day the Springboks flew out, I recall a radio soundbite from a protester who had gone to the airport to yell at the departing South African team one last time.
She said: “We showed the world that we made a stand against racism. Now that the tour’s over, we can go home and have a good rest.”
That comment displayed fantasy, ego and deception at work — classic bullshit. It created a false equivalency between apartheid and our homegrown racism. And hers was clearly a casual flirtation with a meaningful protest movement.
Protest isn’t about personal grievance or FOMO (fear of missing out). It’s about shared values. Shared values are the glue that binds together a legitimate civil society, and one that is civil to itself.
A young wahine Māori asked me recently what Dame Whina Cooper might have done about the anti-everything protests recently dispatched from our Parliament grounds. I said that I had no idea, but I bet she would have been driven by the data and motivated by the needs of iwi, rather than her own.
If we respect the facts, and the mana of others, bullshit dies a natural death.
Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.