Passing bull 159 – Yours sincerely


One of the problems of saying something ‘sincerely’ is like that which you may experience in saying something ‘honestly’ – what inference might your correspondent draw if you choose to omit the modifier?  If you say that you are being sincere or honest, what happens if you do not say so?  Depending on whether there is a relationship of trust and confidence, might the problem be worse if you say that you are speaking ‘candidly’?  ‘What am I to think if you choose your words to suggest that you are not being candid with me?’  Might you be entering that moral zone that allows some people to commit not the original but the ultimate sin – cheating at golf?  Or are you one of those people who think that tampering with a cricket ball, which is a breach of the rules with a defined penalty, is worse than bowling underarm (or bodyline), which is not a breach of the rules, except that which refers to ‘the spirit of the game’, but which certainly brings the game into contempt and may create an international incident?

The Oxford English Dictionary has for ‘sincere’ – ‘Not falsified or perverted in any way; genuine, pure; veracious; exact.’  When you say that you are being sincere, you are saying that ‘I (really or truly) believe this’. You are in fact, as the OED suggests, denying that you are lying.  That is why it is usually at best dangerous and at worst wrong for a disciplinary tribunal to order someone to apologise for what they have done.  If you order John or Betty to say ‘I am sorry I did that’, you may be ordering them to lie.

But the notion of sincerity has a role to play in public life.  Some politicians come across as insincere and that is very bad for them.  Let’s put to one side the leading Australian contender for that role and look at Hillary Clinton.  Too many people believed that she did not really stand for anything except Hillary Clinton, and that was a significant reason why she lost.  The fact that the man who beat her was and always will be so much guiltier of that failing is one of those sad accidents of history to which the lottery of democracy is unfortunately prone.  (And we might add that the failings of democracy are best advertised by those who claim to represent the ‘people’ – which is about the most lethal form of insincerity that you could imagine.)

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who should know better, has a related problem.  With as much front as Myers, she solemnly and sincerely affirms to the camera: ‘I insist on being truthful, not neutral’.  This is not just a false dichotomy – as a journalist she not only can but should aspire to being both truthful and neutral.   But if she sincerely believes this promo, CNN has a problem.  It is endorsing loaded reporting – how does this distinguish them from Fox News?  You may argue that being passionate is consistent with being professional – I think you would lose; but you certainly cannot be both professional and partisan. 

Sincerity is always likely to be out of place where objectivity is required – particularly in a professional relationship.  If your doctor says to you ‘I sincerely believe that surgery is your best way forward,’ you would surely wonder why a professional person would feel the need to give some form of personal warranty.  You want your doctor to be professional not personal.  It’s the same if your lawyer says ‘I sincerely believe that you should take this offer.’  And it’s a total disaster if the lawyer tells the judge or jury that he or she sincerely believes anything.  The process involves an objective review of the evidence according to law, not a subjective exposé of the state of mind of one of the participants.

It may be part of the job of the professional adviser to assist the punter – the patient, or client, or parishioner, say – to reach a sensible conclusion while believing that they have reached that position with complete freedom.  (Some professionals have a conception of ‘guided democracy’ that is not far short of that of Messrs Erdogan or Putin, but that is a matter for another day.)  But if the professional offers some form of personal assurance in that process, they are not just defying logic – they are being unprofessional.

And that proposition – which I regard as assured – illustrates the main problem in our public life now.  Sensible discussion proceeds by a sensible (or, you prefer reasonable or objective) review of the evidence and arguments, and not by succumbing to some personal invocation to ‘Follow me.’  We should leave that to people who are content, for whatever reason, to follow the injunctions of the man called Christ or the man called the Prophet or the man called the Führer.   But, tragically, too many people are happy to check their brains in at the door and follow, like a herd of cattle, the personal call of people like Farage, Hanson, or Trump.

For the second time in two years, I am dealing with an illness that will kill me unless it is dealt with.  To deal with it, I am immensely fortunate to have access to the best science and professional practice in the world.  I place full trust in my professional advisers.  I act on their advice.  I am not a religious fanatic whose faith may limit my options, but I suppose that at least in theory, there were at least two options open to me (excluding sticking my head in the sand).  One was to follow science as expounded by my professional advisers.  Another was to follow the tribal customs of, say, the Hottentots or Esquimaux or the Murdoch press – and commit the teaching of science to the flames.

How else do you express the mess that we have got into on our environment than by expressing the view that too many people have been seduced into the second course?  And that is before you ask whether these snake-oil salesmen believe their nostrums – ‘sincerely believe’ them – or just lay them out because this is how they make a living.  The latter would of course involve another form of unprofessional conduct, but that, too, is a matter for another day.

In his book, On Bullshit, Professor Frankfurt says:

It is just this lack of a connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit … Bullshit is unavoidable wherever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  The essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony.

Of more relevance to this note, the Professor ended his book with these words:

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.


Asked if it was standard practice for the federal government to hand $400m to an organisation without any tender process or transparency, Frydenberg said the process had ‘a lot of transparency.

 ‘I really think that this is being raised as a distraction from the government’s achievement in investing in the reef, as opposed to anything else’ he said.

The Guardian, 3 August, 2018.

‘A lot of transparency’ is up there with ‘a little bit pregnant’ or ‘I really think’ – bullshit.  Do these people sincerely believe that we came down in the last bloody shower?

2 thoughts on “Passing bull 159 – Yours sincerely

  1. Thanks as always for sharing your philosophy. May “God” ensure you are well enough to continue to hold a mirror to our society.
    Please note new email address below

    • Thanks. I have a former client, an Anglican priest, praying for me. And he’s doing as good a job as the team at the Alfred – who have taken over from the team at Peter Mac.

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