Thursday, 24 November 2011

Fair Comment...?

Now on first sight I thought this interesting attachment to one of the many Sheffield Wildlife Trust papers pinned to gates around the moor meant something like “No Cowpats Here, Thank You”. Doubtless the person responsible thought it amusing. It is. But following a little research I think that there could be more to it:

When buying men’s socks over the internet you may come across this.

An identical symbol is labelled on these socks as ‘No Bullsh*t’. I imagine this line is very popular with those who are obliged to attend meetings at which they may have to listen to some material that's hard to take. At a suitable point the wearer nudges his neighbour and lifts his trouser leg hoping the reaction will be a suppressed guffaw and a welcome distraction from the tedium of the meeting.

So to return to the appearance of the symbol on Blacka Moor it is a comment not just on the defecation of cattle but also on the content of the notice itself. Neat.

Bullsh*t is an interesting concept and from here on please take the asterisk as read. And I think it’s fair to say that much of the spurious self justification used by the local conservation industry could be described as bullshit.
The Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, Harry G Frankfurt once wrote an essay ‘On Bullshit’ which is printed in a collection published by Cambridge University Press called ‘The Importance of What We Care About’. The whole book is worth reading but this essay has become famous. Chambers Dictionary describes bullshit as a verb meaning simply ‘to talk nonsense often with the intention of deceiving.’

But Frankfurt goes further than this, spending some time in his essay unpicking the various meanings of lies, humbug and bullshit. While lies and bullshit are similar in seeking to mislead they have important differences. A key one, according to Frankfurt, is in the relationship with the truth. As he says, the 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. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.’
So the liar at least acknowledges truth to the extent that he tries to conceal it. The bullshitter misleads because he doesn’t give a damn about the truth being intent only on communicating what suits him; he is self-serving.

More quotes from the essay:

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.”
“For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”
“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 those of the honest man and the liar are, except in so far 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.”

How much of what we read from the local conservation people can be called bullshit is arguable. Certainly much of it can, but a proportion of the nonsense may just be excusable because they or some of them actually believe it. Which, in its way, is equally depressing.

"The Importance Of What We Care About" by Harry Frankfurt. Cambridge University Press 1998.

1 comment:

Mark Fisher said...

Couple of paragraphs from a journal article published earlier this year. They would seem to cover the situation at Blacka quite well.

"Conservation policies of the European Nature 2000 network reflect an overarching concern about alleged negative effects of abandonment of traditional uses. In particular, the abandonment of livestock herding is widely assumed to be responsible of biodiversity decreases through habitat homogenization. However, those negative effects of land abandonment on biodiversity are neither straightforward nor the repeatedly assumed land abandonment has been always supported by hard data."

"Underneath these considerations lays the question of what is natural, how far back should we go to find conservation goals (Willis and Birks 2006), and whether to preserve cultural landscapes (sensu UNESCO 1974) or the naturalness and integrity of ecosystems (sensu Anderson 1991; Angermeier 2000). We feel that these considerations, together with more hard data at appropriate spatial scales, should replace typological thinking and assumptions about negative ecological effects of land abandonment in mountain areas. Preserving traditional uses of the landscape and helping local human communities are legitimate policy options. The aesthetic and social values of these modified mountain landscapes, while subjective, are not discussed here. Instead, we argue that such goals should not be disguised under the term of nature conservation. Instead, they should be named according to their main objective, e.g. preservation of cultural landscapes or economic activities"

Blanco-Fontao et al (2011) Abandonment of traditional uses in mountain areas: typological thinking versus hard data in the Cantabrian Mountains (NW Spain) Biodiversity Conservation 20:1133–1140