‘One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit’ – so begins moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s treatise on bullshit and its function. Bullshit comes, he argues, from one who ‘does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly’, but says them regardless, in pursuit of their desired ends.1
Bullshit has been enjoying unprecedented success in recent years. The Mexicans will pay for the wall. Britain’s National Health Service will enjoy a weekly £350m injection after Brexit. Australia stops the boats to prevent drownings at sea. But the bullshit I’m interested in right now is that populating Australia’s copyright reform debates.
A great deal of this bullshit is motivated by good intentions – most notably, the desire to sustain writers’ incomes in an era of precipitous, disastrous decline. In the last major survey, conducted by Macquarie University researchers in 2015, Australian authors were found to earn an annual average of just $12,900 from their writing work; the median, at $2,800, is even more concerning. In the UK, which has better longitudinal data, earnings of professional writers have dropped 42 per cent in real terms between 2005 and 2017, according to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. In that same time, the proportion able to make a living solely from writing work fell from 40 per cent to 13.7 per cent. The jobs at newspapers and magazines that used to so often be relied on to bolster book earnings have largely evaporated. Many of us know people who have lost their writing jobs, or who are just barely clinging on. Much of the blame is aimed at Google and Facebook, and understandably so: the two companies have managed to vacuum up some 60 per cent of global online ad revenue, despite investing almost nothing in producing the content to which it’s attached.
But pure intentions don’t stop bullshit from being bullshit. Frankfurt’s theory doesn’t require nefarious aims – simply the saying of things, regardless of truth, in pursuit of desired ends. As he puts it, ‘[t]he bullshitter … does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.’
Frankfurt sees bullshit as the greatest enemy of truth. I don’t know if I agree, but I dothink bullshit is dangerous. In this case, the bullshitters’ indifference to facts is hurting the interests of the authors they are ostensibly trying to protect.
So what is the bullshit I’m talking about? And what are the issues and interests it serves to obscure?’ – my latest article on author’s interests has just been published in the Overland Journal; you can read it in full here.