What is the difference between bullshit and horseshit? I just listened to Ira Glass confront Mike Daisey, who had given a deliberately erroneous account of Apple’s factory conditions in China on This American Life, so I guess the topic is on my mind. According to Wikipedia, “The term ‘horseshit’ is a near synonym [for bullshit].” A much-approved-of definition on Urban Dictionary concurs: “Horseshit is really the same as bullshit, but less cliched and therefore slightly more provocative.” With all due respect to these authoritative sources, I think there is room to make a genuine distinction.
Before doing so, though, it is worth recalling the description of bullshit as given by philosopher Harry Frankfurt: “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.”
By and large, I accept Frankfurt’s terms here: bullshit is not at heart about truth or falsehood, so much as it about the speaker’s wishing to appear to know something at a given moment that his audience does not happen to know. Whether this something can be verified or not later is of no concern with respect to bullshit. It is all about appearance. Horseshit, by contrast, is more insidious and more pathetic than bullshit. A former colleague of mine, a Jesuit priest as it happens, once maintained that there was a real and palpable distinction between the two. “Bullshit,” he would say (and here I am quoting as best I can from memory), “is not true, but it’s something you say to others in hopes that they’ll believe it. Horseshit is not true, but at the moment you are saying it, you are willing to believe that it is.”
I agree that the terms “horseshit” and “bullshit” are used interchangeably, even synonymously at times. But there are times when “horseshit” is precisely the mot propre, and “bullshit” would be off. For instance, in an interview with Paris Review in 1958, author James Jones said “I am at the moment trying to write a novel [The Thin Red Line], a combat novel, which, in addition to being a work which tells the truth about warfare as I saw it, would free all these young men from the horseshit which has been engrained in them by my generation. I don’t think that combat has ever been written about truthfully; it has always been described in terms of bravery and cowardice. I won’t even accept these words as terms of human reference any more.” This strikes me as a very fine illustration of the word.
It may be that we are beginning to tread into the territory outlined by Plato in the Euthryphro here. But rather than do that, let me conclude by saying that what is dangerous about bullshit is how it degrades our regard for truth. What is even more dangerous about horseshit, though, is the fact that we sometimes voluntarily act on that disregard. The one is to have the car headlights off at night; the other is to have the lights off and then to start up the engine and drive.