There’s a famous essay by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt called “On Bullshit”. To cut a long argument short, what Frankfurt refers to as “bullshit” is a wholly instrumental use of language – talking entirely for effect, without any regard for the truth of what’s being said. Bullshit isn’t lying, Frankfurt argues; it’s worse than that. Someone telling the truth will be able to back up what they’re saying, explaining why they think it’s true and how it relates to other true statements. (“I’m late because my train was delayed; they were fixing something before it set off, and it must have broken down again because we stopped for half an hour in the middle of nowhere. It’s never happened before, I hope it doesn’t become a regular thing.”) Telling a lie is the opposite of telling the truth, but the two things are also very closely related: somebody telling a lie is always conscious of what the truth is, and what they say will be guided by reference to the truth they’re not telling. (“I’m late because my train was delayed; I went straight from work to the station, and the thought of stopping for a drink never even crossed my mind. If you can smell beer it’s because somebody spilled a can on me on the train. Which was delayed, as I was saying.”)
Bullshit is worse than lying: the person bullshitting doesn’t care whether they’re telling the truth or not – or even whether they’re telling a consistent story. All they care about is getting the right effect. (“I’m late because my train was late again – it’s always late, it’s unbelievable. Well, not always always, but it’s always been late recently. I had to run, as well. I didn’t make it in the end, I was stuck in the station bar for ages. Of course I was on time getting there, it must have been running early, I don’t know. It’s just so unreliable, that train.”)
In other words, bullshit is using language purely to produce the right kind of impression. Bullshit pollutes debate and devalues language, according to Frankfurt’s argument. It’s not a new phenomenon: advertising is full of bullshit; political debate is an odd combination of reasonably truthful debate interspersed with steaming piles of bullshit. (In this country, at least; the bullshit-to-truth ratio seems to be higher in the US and some other countries, e.g. Italy.)
Changing the subject for a moment, I had a half of Acorn Gorlovka Imperial Stout last night which was superb – easily a match for the Red Willow Ageless DIPA I’d had just before it. Acorn is a brewery I hadn’t paid much attention to until recently, but they’re producing some terrific stuff just at the moment – the (very) dark bitter Legend and the self-explanatory milds Darkness and Lightness have all been excellent. Acorn, Red Willow, Dunham Massey, Marble – I love those guys. Really love them.
But I’ll chew my own hand off at the wrist before I call them “craft brewers”.
I’ve read Dave’s latest. I like Dave, I like his beer a lot, and the Fuller’s collaboration sounds great. But what is this actually saying?
Craft beers have a real story behind them. Real personalities. Real people. People who care about touching base with the drinker who buys the beer. People whose inspiration shines through not only in the beer itself but also the fact that they take time to communicate what the beer is about. People who are not just influenced by accountants, and shareholders who care only about their dividend, but are also influenced by wanting to inspire the drinker.
There are only two interpretations I can come up with.
- It’s a roundabout way of saying “Craft brewers are people who (a) make beer (b) talk about how great their beer is and (c) do it on Twitter.”
- It’s bullshit.
At the moment I’m leaning towards 2. All this stuff about passion and authenticity seems so subjective and unverifiable as to be beyond challenging – and if something can’t be challenged it can’t really be talked about. All you’re saying when you call somebody a craft brewer is that you want to hang the label of “craft brewer” on them, because they’re great and craft brewers are great. It doesn’t seem to add anything to discussion of beer and brewers, and I think ultimately it actually detracts from it. This vacuous, unchallengeable label is being bestowed as a badge of merit – and that means it can be used to justify poor performance (“of course every bottle isn’t the same!”) and sharp practice (“of course you have to pay a bit more!”).
“Craft beer”, in short, is bullshit. But I’m not using that as the title of the post – once is enough.
PS The actual title of the post is what you get if you start with “Craft beer is bullshit” and then play with Google Translate for half an hour. I think it’s a great improvement.