On BS Detectors


You will probably recall that I have often jokingly referred to my work in the philosophy classroom as that of implanting a BS detector in the head of each student. Today’s post is written by a recent graduate of the VIU philosophy department. I never met her since I was retired by the time of the “Silver Age” of the department. Her VIU philosophy prof describes her: “Jess was part of the first group of majors to go through the VIU philosophy program. She was a regular at our extracurricular events, and took several courses with me. She’s a great person and a wonderful artist, as well as a very skilled teacher.”

She says this about herself:


I was very lucky to have had my bullshit detector honed at VIU under the tutelage of Justin Kalef, whose commitment was so appreciated by the small cohort that was actually the very first group of philosophy majors. Since my unceremonious graduation, which aligned with the great strike of 2011, I’ve spent each year doing a different thing in a different place until something sticks. Given the apparent nature of my being, I truly feel philosophy has saved me from the madness of meaninglessness and fear of the unknown. So hooray for that. Since free will is an illusion, I have no “plans” – just desires. The only constant in my life is publishing an annual magazine called “The Free Wheel”.


Philosophers at Work

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Jess Charmaine

I’m five years past a major in philosophy and to my mother’s non-surprise, I’m having trouble securing a job. This is not for lack of trying, or lack of jobs, or even lack of getting a job. I’ve gotten every job I’ve interviewed for post-grad. I’ve also quit all of these jobs, because if there’s one thing philosophy has taught me, it’s not to stand for bullshit. And there is a lot of bullshit in the workplace.

(Bullshit, or Biased Unverifiable Lax Logical Substantiation of Hegemonic Ideological Truths (Wikipedia), is defined in the workplace as personal battles infringing on productivity, stemming from or resulting in unclear/indirect/no communication (ie: passive aggression), insecurity (ie: power struggles), inconsistency/hypocrisy from malicious or incompetent management (ie: abuse of power)

Back to my mom. She is a BSC, one-track career kind of woman and expresses concern over me and my life choices on a regular basis. And by “life” she means work, because in her world they are one and the same. Theoretically, my philosophy background should come in handy for keeping cool in times like these, but this has proven practically impossible; the state of our relationship over this conflict of values is probably my biggest failing as a so-called philosopher.

According to her, some degree of bullshit will always exist no matter where you work, and the mature thing to do is put up with it for the sake of job security. According to me, workplace bullshit does not have to exist. At all. Or, at the very least, you don’t have to put up with it. To the degree that workplaces can be dysfunctional, they have the potential to be functional, even joyful, no matter what the work is. It takes one person in a toxic workplace where no one feels safe to speak up to confront what’s wrong to blow the whole thing open. Chaos before order.

To put up with bullshit for a paycheque is little different than selling your soul. To quote my favourite bullshit-intolerator, Nietzsche, “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” Even though finding stable work in a functional workplace has been my life’s greatest struggle so far (hand-in-hand with gaining the respect of my mother) and my account balance reflects this, I’m proud of my choices. I really believe toxic workplaces are the root of more evil than we can easily trace, and bad leaders need to be shot down as immediately and kindly as possible, and if not, good people should not be doing their bidding.

So many people still don’t get this, but Philosophy is not a useless navel-gazing pursuit concerned with existential questions non-applicable to real life. That’s only part of it. Philosophy is a method of living the good life and is about acquiring the thinking skills necessary to identify, clarify, and navigate through the bullshit to do so. It’s about leaving logical and emotional biases at the door to do the right thing for yourself and the environment in which you live, and that includes work.

Organizations often preach their “philosophy” without knowing the meaning of the word; what they mean is “doctrine”. Without a culture that is actively engaged in testing assumptions, questioning authority, and, in which all employees are able to communicate clearly without fear, it may as well be a cult. That’s why there needs to be more philosophers in the workplace, or at least more philosophizing. If managers of a workplace had a background or correct understanding/appreciation of philosophy I can’t really imagine workplace toxicity even existing, as it’s part of the practice of philosophy to nip such nonsense in the bud.

Studying philosophy is the unconventional life choice I least regret, especially as applied to the workforce. It’s surprisingly employable, transferable, and it’s given me the sense to know when a job is not working for me as well as the confidence and skills to be able to quit with dignity. Not falling into the work-to-live trap is something we have to make sure to avoid before it’s too late to even know it’s a trap, and philosophy will give the necessary skills that, if practiced, will last a lifetime.

Just like my mommy issues.


And now, Jess and I invite you all to contribute to the discussion!

15 thoughts on “On BS Detectors

  1. Well, there is a certain amount of BS in most every job – although I agree with e.e. Cummings “there is some shit I will not eat” – so there must be an accommodation of some sort if one wants to work at all. Depends on how finely tuned one’s detector is, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Here’s a funny little tidbit of bs from the company I most recently worked for, though it happened after the quitting (which happened after politely enduring loads and loads of bs that year – I tolerate some!).

        The nepotism was so strong with this one that HR was actually just the boss’s sister who lived on the East Coast. She was so out of the loop and I’m not even sure what her function was. It certainly wasn’t HR. Anyway when I sent in my letter of resignation to the boss, I received the following morning a reply from this HR that said my mother had called and left a message 5 times, and please don’t discuss my contract with my mother.

        I hadn’t talked to my mother in a while, so the only thing that made sense was that there had been some sort of family emergency, and (since my phone had actually been stolen the night before!!), the only number she could associated with me was that of my employer. I expressed this worry and, I quote, “Based on your response and the fact that I can’t get in touch with [name] right at the moment. I think we should assume this was a mix up.” FLAWLESS LOGIC!

        The next several e-mails over the course of the half-day (during which I still couldn’t contact my mom), were me trying to get this HR person to tell me on what basis she thought my mom had called. All attempts were dodged and eventually ignored, and when I persisted, she says, “I feel quite confident it was the mother of another Jess.” (bs)

        Took all I had not to reply, “Is there someone in HR I can go to about this?”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, and I was wondering why the paranoia about my mom calling, when I remembered that I had told boss lady offhand a while back that my mom works for the WCB (so presumably knows a little something about workers rights). Ah-ha!


    • I agree. BS is a broad spectrum and without some more precise measuring tool (calibrated pitch-fork) it’s hard to say where the compromise should be.


    • From the 2011 post (link above):

      Let me provide three examples:

      1. Many years ago I was a Personnel Supervisor for the Boeing Company working in Seattle. Just before Christmas a woman came to see my secretary and asked if she could get a plane ticket to Santa Maria so she could spend Christmas with her husband who was a test engineer working at Vandenburg Air Force base in Lompoc. We checked and discovered that the contract allowed for “Operation Reindeer” a plan to allow employees who were TDY to travel home for the holidays on the company. Her husband was a key employee in the effort to get a Minuteman missile airborne in the new year. His absence would be costly. Since it would be cheaper to send the wife to California than to send the husband to Washington, I reasoned that it would be the right thing to do and authorized the purchase of a round trip ticket for the wife, a teacher who was off for several days anyway. She was happy. Her engineer husband could continue working and see his wife. It all made sense. But when the purchase order got to accounting it was questioned. A vice-president was alerted. I was called in to explain my irrational act. The counter argument? Operation Reindeer covered employees, but not the spouses of employees. But, said I, look at the money we are saving! Finally the VP for operations called me in. We talked. He agreed with me and said he would “take up a collection” if he had to in order to make good on my decision. That one turned out OK. The teacher-wife went to California; the bird flew in January.

      2. After moving to Canada I started going to a dentist who had an office close by. On my second visit for a cleaning his hygienist started to set me up for x-rays. I don’t want x-rays, said I. It is company policy, said she. Is there any suggestion that I need x-rays? No, it is company policy. Dr. Twitt says that everyone must have x-rays. I got up and left, and changed dentists. Company policy cost the practice.

      3. Recently I bought a tablet from amazon.ca because my editor wanted me to start reviewing ebooks so he would not have to send real books across the continent to me. I selected a tablet since amazon.ca was not offering the Kindle. The tablet was about $250. Three weeks later the same unit was advertised from the same site at about $170. I emailed and asked for the $80. They said they no longer had a lower price guarantee. I said well, what if I return it for a refund. They said yes, you can do that. So, I did. They even paid the return postage. Where’s the logic in that? Company policy.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I love this article. I feel as though bullshit has overwhelmed our world to the extent that the future looks grim. But I am old now and have found it so difficult to endure the recycled stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. One can find a ton of BS on this Blog! 😉
    Want more? Just do a site search with “bullshit” as the keyword.

    You will find a few – like this from 2006.

    Harry Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit [see below] has become an instant classic. And for good reason. Frankfurt does an analysis of the language that surrounds us every day in an attempt to identify bullshit and separate it from lying, exaggerating and other rhetorical excesses in this world of spin and deception.

    Liked by 1 person

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