Some notes about “bullshit”

I follow a Youtube channel that covers the military-industrial complex and military investment around the world. What I like about this channel is that it talks about military capability and quality in terms of strategy, intelligence and logistics, and not in terms of the number of tanks and aircraft. A recent video on this channel talked about the ongoing Russian failures in Ukraine and focused on what they describe as one of the Four Horsemen of military underperformance. “Vranyo” is a Russian word that the video described as a culture of lying.

According to Wiktionary, Vranyo is defined as “White lies or half-lies in Russian culture, told without the intention of (maliciously) deceiving, but as a fantasy, suppressing unpleasant parts of the truth“. Perhaps more simply put, Vranyo is about covering one’s own arse and pretending that everything is ok. In Australia, we use an all-encompassing term to describe this phenomenon, no matter the magnitude – “Bullshit”. Now call me cynical, but I would suggest that anyone who has been involved with reporting in any large organisation would be familiar with this phenomenon. The regular reports that narrow in scope as they vertically traverse our organisational hierarchies will tend to be predisposed to good news over bad. I guess it’s human nature; nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news when it could impact their job or their standing.

“As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things”

(Frankfurt, 2009)

The aforementioned video talks about the cascade of bullshit (Vranyo) in the Russian military-industrial complex and political system. I would argue that we observe similar phenomena, albeit with far less consequence, on a daily basis in higher education. The decision-makers at the top of the hierarchy are at the end of an upwardly cascading chain of “Chinese Whispers” that can be dominated by positive imagery, or when bad news can’t be avoided, it is accompanied by a positively framed path to resolution. There are shades of Plato’s Cave here in that the mental models of the people in the upper echelons of the organisation are the product of their ability to sense what is happening in the environment. Throw into this mix the use of external consultants who lack intimate knowledge of the context and are masterful at telling people what they want to hear, not what they necessarily need to hear.

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about”

(Frankfurt, 2009)

In my experience, the problem gets worse when we are talking about education technology inside a university. Education technology conversations in universities tend to be highly political and provide “powerful means of advancing the interests and agendas of some social groups over the interests of others” (Selwyn, 2016). Discussions about technology often use language that conveys certainty, confidence and revolutionary potential, when history shows that “education has been largely un-transformed and un-disrupted by successive waves of technological innovation” (Selwyn, 2016). The indifference, ignorance or misinterpretation of objective reality has, based on my observations, become a very real problem for universities that are supposed to be at the vanguard of critical thinking.

References

Frankfurt, H. G. (2009). On bullshit. In On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bullshit… and what might be done about it. In: Taylor & Francis.

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