There’s an essay which I see referenced every so often, titled On Bullshit. The bit of it I most commonly remember seeing quoted, and wanted to reference here, is, usefully, the extract quoted on bullshit’s own Wikipedia page:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
I think this makes for a good definition; it’s useful to have a term for this particular kind of disregard for accurately representing reality, as distinct from lying. I also think it leaves a gap for a related term.
It’s possible, I suggest, to fail to be either on the side of the true or that of the false, not through cunning self-interest, but through simple incompetence. To have an eye on the facts, but for that eye to be so blind, or perhaps feeding its input to a brain so stultified, that it might as well not be.
True bullshit, as described above, must be powered by at least a modicum of intelligence. One’s purpose must be clearly identified to oneself, and some declarations and assertions found which can be persuaded to support it, even if their connection to reality is never regarded. This naive alternative to bullshit I’m describing might be mistaken for bullshit, as the results are often very similar – but the self-serving motivation of the bullshitter is replaced by a hapless inability to formulate sentences, or perhaps even beliefs, that correspond to truth or falsehood with any reliable consistency.
It’s not quite the case that I’m simply describing a well-meaning idiot, truthfully describing the world as they feebly understand it, either. Again, the results may be close enough that the distinction isn’t always clear, but my suggestion requires a certain level of bluster, of continued pressing-on and self-assurance, combined with an utter disconnection from the world and any facts within it. Arguably, he does “believe” the truth of what he says, but so little thought is put toward it, such meagre analysis of any beliefs or opinions he superficially appears to hold, that even whether any meaningful comprehension of his surroundings is occurring remains unclear. He processes enough to continue functioning, but not enough that any relationship between his assertions and the world around him can be counted upon.
I reckon there’s something there worth describing. Now it just needs a name.
And based on my experiences today, I think a fine name for this phenomenon would be “Southeastern Rail”.
Yes, this was all just a thinly veiled rant about my ridiculous commute this morning. Sorry.