Harry Frankfurt, Humbug, and the Battle against Wokery

Although Harry Frankfurt was not a libertarian, his critique of egalitarianism reflects the principles of liberty. Frankfurt argued that “economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance” and that “if everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others.” This has been described by David Gordon as

an argument that most people who read Mises Institute articles will know already. In brief, the argument is that what matters to someone is how well he himself is doing. So long as a person has enough to lead a satisfying life, why should it matter whether there are other people who have more?

Another of Frankfurt’s essays—his critique of sophistry, deceit, lies, and other forms of humbug—is also helpful in understanding why the egalitarian schemes of the “notorious Frankfurt School” of cultural Marxism continue to prevail even though they are repeatedly debunked. It adds to our understanding of why people continue to promote socialist ideals despite knowing that they have never worked and cannot work. Similarly, it helps to explain why the tide of wokery continues to swell despite widespread popular opposition to it.

One reason why wokery proliferates is the relentless promotion of what Frankfurt calls “humbug,” “balderdash,” “claptrap,” “hokum,” “drivel,” “buncombe,” “imposture,” or “quackery.” Frankfurt describes humbug as a “lack of connection to a concern with truth.” The essence of humbug is not merely that it happens to be false, or that it is unsupported by facts, but that it is deliberate fakery: “It is not that it is false but that it is phony.”

Frankfurt devotes much of his analysis to the distinction between what is false (built on a lie) and what is fake by design: nobody has been lied to because everyone knows that it is fake. We all know wokery is a load of hokum. Frankfurt emphasizes that “although [humbug] is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false.” Moreover, it is not necessarily careless. On the contrary, it is often carefully and deliberately crafted not with an intention to deceive but with the intention of constructing a phony façade behind which further fake schemes can be implemented.

One might ask why it matters whether humbug is intended to deceive or not—after all, the fact that it is humbug should suffice as a good reason to reject it altogether. The important insight from Frankfurt’s analysis is that it tells us what type of battle against wokery is likely to succeed. Precisely because this type of fakery is impervious to both truth and facts—the fact that deceit is not central to its purpose—means that it cannot be vanquished simply by exposing the elements of it that are deceitful or untrue, or by showing that it is based on an incorrect grasp of the relevant facts.

Lies, by contrast, would be a more straightforward threat to contain. Lies can be defeated by simply pointing to the truth. The essence of the lie, as Frankfurt explains, is an intention to deceive: “The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.”

This means that a mere case of telling lies can be countered effectively by pointing out the correct facts. People do not like being lied to and will not go along with a scheme that they know to be based on an outright lie, nor will they accept the edicts of a known liar. There is, as Frankfurt notes, a sharp consequence to being caught in a blatant lie, as the lie (and the liar) will be summarily rejected.

The phony, by contrast, often gets away with his façade, as his case does not stand or fall based on any specific lie. Lies that are merely incidental to his purpose will be debunked without toppling the phony. Thus, wokery continues to march forward no matter how many woke lies are debunked. A good example is the phony ideology of gender promoted by so-called gender-inclusive feminists. Some people suffer from gender dysphoria—they inform us—and some people are born intersex. There are some elements of truth in that. On that basis, these phonies have constructed a façade behind which schoolchildren are encouraged by their teachers to identify as a different gender, choose a new name for themselves, and keep it secret from their parents. The social and psychological trauma caused to children by such gender schemes is inevitably excused by saying that its promoters had “good intentions” and were not trying to deceive anyone but simply trying to help all the children feel welcome and included.

The important point to draw from Frankfurt’s analysis of humbug is that unlike liars, wokies cannot be thwarted merely by informing people of the truth. Campaigners who have tried to exclude gender ideology from the school curriculum have discovered that simply exposing the pornographic books that children are encouraged to read in school makes no difference. Parents are shocked and appalled, but the World Health Organization recommends that children as young as four should be taught about gender and sexuality. So even if specific books are banned from libraries, the wokery carries on. The phony façade behind which it flourishes is well-entrenched and impervious to whistleblowers.

If wokies merely promoted ideas they knew to be false, that would make them vulnerable to having their lies exposed. In the example of gender ideology, those trying to highlight statistics about the insignificant numbers of people who suffer from gender dysphoria—too few to justify overhauling the school curriculum—are whistling into the wind because statistical analysis plays no role in humbug. The crucial point Frankfurt makes about the purveyor of humbug is that he attaches no significance to whether, or to what extent, his humbug is based on truth or lies: “The truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.”

The argument being made here is not that wokies never tell lies, nor that debunking their lies is a pointless exercise, but that the hegemony of woke ideology does not attach significance to whether its tenets are true or false. It is constructed on intellectual foundations in which there is no such thing as objective truth or objectively true principles. The point being made here is, rather, that the lies wokies tell are merely incidental to their primary goal and so debunking their lies will not, in itself, thwart them in the pursuit of their primary goal.

What is important to the woke is not that people should necessarily be deceived by their arguments but that people should go along with the phony façade they construct. In the example of the phony woman, we may not believe that women have penises—and indeed, we are not required actually to believe it—but the law now recognizes them as women and protects them from being discriminated against based on their gender identity or their putative sex. Similarly, decolonizers do not care whether their narrative is based on truth or correct facts. Everybody knows that 2 + 2 does not equal 5, but mathematics is being decolonized regardless of that. The phony narrative itself is the point, and the decolonizers’ goal is not to deceive people into thinking 2 + 2 equals 5 but to get away with dismantling the natural sciences. Those who repeatedly point out that 2 + 2 equals 4 are, in the battle against wokery, on a hiding to nothing.

The ultimate aim of wokery is to seize and maintain power by any means necessary. In purveying humbug, the aim of wokery is to entrench the new culture. Frankfurt says that “what [the purveyor of humbug] does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” In this context, what he is up to is nothing less than the destruction of Western civilization, as civilization is built on principles inimical to the antihuman ideology of wokery.

As Frankfurt says, “However studiously and conscientiously the [phony] proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.” In the case of wokery, the phony is trying to get away with dismantling civilization itself while we play whack-a-mole debunking all the random lies he leaves behind in his wake.

This then is the real threat from wokery, of which sight may be lost in the daily drama of the latest outrage. Recently, it was reported that Canadian taxpayers will fund a man who identifies as “female dominant” to have surgery in Texas described as “a penis-sparing vaginoplasty.” This surgery is said to be required by the Human Rights Code so it will be publicly funded. Regardless of whether the ideology is true or false, Ontarians will be paying for it.

But such outrageous cases are a mere sideshow that should not distract our attention from the overriding goal of the woke—namely, to get away with it. The promoter of humbug “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” He does not care whether he is fact-checked or not, as long as he remains in control of the school curriculum, the public purse, and all the institutions that he now commands.

Originally Posted at https://mises.org/

By Mises