The purpose of a liberal education is gaining the ability to detect crap. And crap detection is necessary for two reasons: Because you are a fool. And so am I.
Please do not be offended by the above statements. They are cause for compassion, not criticism.
We are brothers and sisters in fool-hood. We live, move, and have our being in foolishness. And it’s not our fault. We are born into foolishness, and precious few are the voices that would call this fact to our attention — let alone point a way out.
Much of what we hear from pundits and politicians of any stripe is foolishness. Much of what we see in print and find online is foolishness. And often the first words that come out of our mouth on any given subject are pure foolishness — otherwise known as bullshit, or more simply , crap.
A problem for the ages
Alas, this has always been the case. Hamlet — Shakespeare’s most crap-aversive character — said it 500 years ago:
Thus has he—and many more of the same bevy that I know the drossy age dotes on — only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter, a kind of yeasty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.
Or, as rendered by No Fear Shakespeare:
He’s like so many successful people in these trashy times — he’s patched together enough fancy phrases and trendy opinions to carry him along. But blow a little on this bubbly talk, and it’ll burst. There’s no substance here.
Revision as crap detecting
Fortunately there is a solution. It starts with an operational definition of crap.
We utter crap when we string together:
- Words that have no real meaning
- Assertions that violate logic
- Arguments that have little or no supporting evidence
- Sentences that are ugly
For writers, the act of sustained attention and close examination that reveals these flaws is called revision — another word for crap detecting. Writers know that revision is not a luxury. They know that if they skip this step, their readers will be only too happy to point out the resulting crap.
In a masterful essay, Paul Graham reminds us that speakers can miss this opportunity for crap detecting. We let charismatic speakers get away with illogical statements, unsupported assertions, and other species of crap.
Writers, on the other hand, don’t get a pass. The fluff that you can dish out during a speech looks vacuous on paper or screen. Those words words don’t lie. They stare back at you. They help you decide whether to start revising or find some other career.
This is one reason for every idea entrepreneur to write a book. Writing is not just about making money or building a brand or getting speaking gigs or looking good. It’s about discovering whether you actually have anything to say.
If you’re in the business of selling ideas, information, or instructions, this means everything. As Ernest Hemingway famously observed, a writer’s main tool is “a built-in, shockproof shit detector.”
By the way, it’s fine to discover that you’re full of crap. Writing helps you detect this early on — before you try to force any products or services on customers or clients. They might be too polite to ever say, “Honey, you forgot the content.”
Masters of crap detection
Crap detection is an inexhaustible subject, the study of a lifetime. I’m glad to say that there are refresher courses from two esteemed teachers. They’re both dead, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to crap detection. Their teachings are still available.
The first teacher is George Orwell, whose essay Politics and the English Language is an ode to crap detection.
The second is Neil Postman, who carried on the Orwellian tradition with another classic essay, Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.
But please be careful. Be on guard. Be ever vigilant. Because anything you read — including the stuff I write — might just be pure, unadulterated crap.