How rude is ‘bullshit’ in the Tony Abbott sense?

Back in July, I defended the use of the term ‘bullshitting’ in the Harry Frankfurt sense, as connotating that the speaker is indifferent to whether or not he or she is saying is true or meaningful. When politicians have to parrot the party line or offer insincere pleasantries at a function they are ‘bullshitting’.

But how about this from Tony Abbott yesterday:

At the conclusion [of the National Press Club debate], as they shook hands for the cameras, Ms Roxon said: “You can’t even get here on time.”

Mr Abbott replied: “It certainly wasn’t intentional.”

Ms Roxon: “You can control these things, mate. I’m sure had you wanted to, you could.”

Mr Abbott: “That’s bullshit. You’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?”

Ms Roxon: “I can’t help myself and you’ve well and truly earned it today.”

That I think is ‘bullshit’ in the more conventional usage. It’s an accusation of talking nonsense with connotations of unpleasant bodily discharges to make it more offensive.

I’m looking forward to reading Steven Pinker’s new book The Stuff of Thought, but I have already read part of his chapter on swearing, which was reprinted in The New Republic. He argues that words have denotations and connotations (nonsense and excrement respectively, in this case) and that these are processed by different parts of the brain, and that the more ancient and emotional parts of the brain react to the connnotations. Words trigger greater emotional responses the more they are linked to possible dangers in real life. Excrement and sex pose greater threats to health than urination or flatulence, and so ‘shit’ and ‘f**k’ are generally seen as more offensive than ‘piss’ or ‘fart’.

But it is also true that swear words become detached from their literal and emotional meanings and can therefore be less rude. If yesterday’s exchange had been:

Ms Roxon: “You can control these things, mate. I’m sure had you wanted to, you could.”

Mr Abbott: “That’s excrement. You’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?”

it would surely have been more offensive than it in fact was. It would have been better if Abbott had just ignored Roxon’s incitement, but the debate since about ‘bullshit’ strikes me as mock offence taken at the breaking of a greatly-weakened taboo.

29 thoughts on “How rude is ‘bullshit’ in the Tony Abbott sense?

  1. I thought it was an unfortunate, but hilarious exchange. Politicians are humanized when they’re caught out like that (including swearing).
    .
    “Excrement and sex pose greater threats to health than urination or flatulence, and so ’shit’ and ‘f**k’ are generally seen as more offensive than ‘piss’ or ‘fart’.”
    .
    I can understand the excrement, but sex posing a “health risk”? Unless that’s better explained in the book, that fails the evolutionary sociobiology bullshit test for me – something said cavalierly without evidence which seems to make sense according to that form of reductionism . One obvious exception is “c**t”, which is far more offensive than any of the slang words for penis (or f**k).

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  2. Leon – You are the medical student, so you should be able to name even more sexually transmitted diseases than I can. Up until the 1940s, syphilis was a big killer. Until the 20th century, pregnancy and childbirth were very dangerous for women.

    Sex also goes to the emotional and less rational parts of the brain; on top of the health risks there are all the other anxieties and fears associated with getting it and keeping partners.

    Rajat – C*** is associated with the above risks, but that doesn’t explain why it is so much worse than c**k, as Leon says.

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  3. This is just a ‘just-so’ story, but, supposing language to have been developed from a male POV, you use your d**k to p**s and w**k, but when you f**k a c**t you are in danger of getting killed by some other male… Hence c**ts are very dangerous.

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  4. Andrew – I agree about syphilis and pregnancy but, particularly in the latter case, the evolutionary drive should be towards procreation (even if it’s monogamous). Either way, it is still a leap from that to explaining linguistic taboos. Freud used basically biological assumptions to construct his theory, and although evidence has progressed far further since then, I don’t think there’s enough to comment *biologically* about e.g. swearing, just like there wasn’t enough at the time of Totem and Taboo.
    .
    “SOME aspects of what we think and feel are adaptive; I don’t believe that ALL aspects of what we think and feel are adaptive. In particular, in the book I argue that such momentous human activities as dreams, religion, art, music, written language, school math, and school science are not adaptations, but instead are by-products of adaptations.”
    .
    I was more trying to question whether the swearing link was an adaptation or an “exaptation”/by-product. I think sociobiology/evolutionary psychology often leap to adaptive rather than exaptive origins without much evidence. The specifics of language (rather than language itself) just seem so high-level as to warrant silence rather than adaptive explanation, except in a very general sense.

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  5. Ya – I think the guy is an arsehole, but really, that use of “bullshit” is pretty mundane. I doubt it would have been considered except that it was capping off the day for the hapless god-botherer.

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  6. “Ya – I think the guy is an arsehole”

    Normally I would delete that for breaching my civility policy, but in this case commenters can decide how rude it really is.

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  7. I don’t believe the just-so story about the naughtiest swear words being linked to primitive biological function. Here’s why: a kid in kindergarten will over hear those words (from Dad, or other kids at the school) and have absolutely no idea what they mean. They do, however, see the reaction they get from other listeners.
    When said child repeats the word (to get attention, for something fun to do) they get a massive, over the top reaction from a teacher, or a schoolmate, or parent or whatever. It’s just simple re-inforcement that gives those words power, and absolutely nothing to do with the biological functions associated with them.

    There are plenty of counter-examples of words that have similar power in particular cultural groups (try “Jesus” when you hit your thumb with a hammer in front of a bible basher), but I can’t recall any biological function associated with that.

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  8. David – I take the ‘just-so story’ point, but religion excites some primitive emotions, so I’m not sure that it is a good counter-example.

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  9. Perhaps it isn’t a great counter example. A better one might be the reaction to get to words like f*** in different contexts. On a dealing room floor, if it doesn’t come out of your mouth once every four words, you are judged not to be in “the club”. Use it over lunch with a different set of people and the forks will hit the plates. Different times, different places, same speaker, different reactions. If it was somehow primitive and biological, you would expect the reaction to be somewhat constant, but it isn’t.

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  10. Bullshit is a fabulous Aussie word, that should be included in the National Anthem, toot sweet. I imagine Komrade Frau Gillard taught Herr Abbott that one!

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  11. David,

    I wouldn’t neccesarily agree that swear words are qualitatively different due to some primitive biological function, however there’s a fair bit of evidence from cognitive neuropsychology that shows that they are processed qualitatively differently to other more normal types of words in various disorders (e.g,. semantic dementia). So whilst the reason they are qualitatively different might not be obvious, they most probably are. Your example would be (and has been) easy to test. You just find non-swear words that have a similar usage in terms of statistical patterns, and see if they break down the same way.

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  12. All swear words represent an irruption of the chthonic. They are a reminder that the oppressiveness of Apollonian rationality and order is only a veneer whose custodianship of civilisation is never permanent. This explains why the most savage swear words are reserved for the chthonic’s most fertile hearth: women.

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  13. Andrew I think this bilogical link is bullshit (maybe not in the narrow sense you attribute to this word).
    Russian language is particularly rich with these words, so I speak with some authority. Exact synonims have completely different degrees of rudeness or otherwise depending on the context, group conventions, which also changes with passing time. Furthermore some of the synonims become less offensive while others undergo the opposite transition.

    At most there is some original ethimological link, but then the words travel by their own very tricky roads.

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  14. And now I have one confession to make. I didn’t know this word was considered impolite. Until today. I thought it was exactlly the same as nonsense. I mean it is not polite to say that someone else is talking nonsense. In fact it is rude (outside the blogosphere). But it did not occur to me that bullshit carries any extra mileage.

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  15. Boris – I think tone also matters. A humous “bullshit” means something different than a vehement “bullshit”. Then some people often say “Bull. Shit”. That is said in exasperated anger. Then there is “Bull F* Shit” – that is very rude.

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  16. “Ya – I think the guy is an arsehole”

    Normally I would delete that for breaching my civility policy, but in this case commenters can decide how rude it really is.

    This is an interesting case in itself. The american “Asshole” isn’t that offensive, but the Australian “Arsehole” is quite offensive in most contexts (although, it seems to be irretrievably linked to an adjective like “bloody” or “f*cking”. It might be that “ass” has a couple of different meanings I suppose, but it shows that context and culture can make quite a bit of difference in reaction to words. Boris’s interesting story about Russian oaths is reflected in most languages (you can say something is a load of ka-ka at a north shore sydney mothers group, but saying it’s a load of sh*t will wrinkle lots of noses).

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  17. BBCLB you are the only one on the whole internet who thinks it was rude. We had a discussion in the office, and people who have absolutely no sympathy for the Libs, all said it was a storm in a teacup.

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  18. I do not doubt few in the internet thought it was rude but few in the internet understand rudeness.

    It was rude and tasteless and should not have been said particularly since he was clearly in the wrong

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  19. I think what Abbott did wrong was to be less helpful politically than he could have been.

    First, this government has assiduously courted two groups of people: older people, and people who vote on the basis of family values, propriety, often explicitly motivated by religious beliefs. These groups are not mutually exclusive. These people are more sensitive to words like this; particularly when not merely uttered in the presence of, but addressed to, a woman. Second, it is fair to say that this government needs all the help it can get, and that upsetting those who are its most fervent supporters is not helpful.

    Tony Abbott is a senior member of the government. Everyone with a stake in the government – the Prime Minister, the backbencher fearing incipient unemployment, the disinterested but far from uninterested party member – all agree that Tony Abbott can and should do much to shore up the existing Coalition vote and do his utmost to increase it where possible. Abbott is known for his discipline in his utterances, and he demands similar discipline of others. For him to shirk this discipline at such a crucial time, for him to offend mores that may be outdated or not widely held, was a considerable failure on his part. What seemed like an insincere apology compounded his problem.

    It was almost a relief when Peter Garrett chose to dismiss criticism in a different context, even with more polite language, to provide a new scent for the baying hounds to chase.

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  20. “Abbott is known for his discipline in his utterances, ”

    He’s also known for saying what he thinks, which he did twice last week when as you say he would have served his cause better by saying nothing.

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  21. I agree with AE. It was politically unwise, and does project a feeling of arrogance, so unfounded in their current situation. I guess they have been in power too long and got used to this behaviour. It would be much better if he humbly apologised, I am very sorry there was a massive traffic jam or something. People like this, I think.

    But it is not about the word.

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