Listening to Erin O’Toole last week, I was reminded of what the distinguished Yale University philosophy professor Robert Frankfurt wrote many years ago in a thoughtful essay entitled “Reflections on Bullshit.”
When it comes to assessing truthfulness—a popular exercise during an election campaign—we can separate the truth-tellers from the liars. But Professor Frankfurt helpfully provided us with a third category—that of bullshitter.
Bullshitters simply don’t care about the truth. They will say anything to advance their agenda.
Of course, O’Toole is hardly alone among political leaders in his willingness to abandon truthfulness in order to gain votes. But what makes him stand out among bullshitters is the scope and nature of his bullshitting, his willingness to engage in it with utter disregard for human welfare.
Let’s take his handling of the ban on assault weapons.
O’Toole won the Conservative leadership race in August 2020 by pandering to the party’s large hard-right crowd—including by promising Conservative gun enthusiasts that he would end the Trudeau government’s 2020 order-in-council banning some 1,500 semi-automatic weapons.
That ban outlawed a wide range of deadly firearms, including those used in the massacre of 14 women at the École Polytechnique in 1989 and in the rampage that killed 22 people in Nova Scotia last year.
In response to that Nova Scotia carnage—the worst in Canadian history—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he would ban “military-grade, assault-style weapons” such as those used in the rampage.
These rapid-fire weapons are designed to kill large numbers of people very quickly. O’Toole got Conservative hearts pounding with his promise to make these horrific weapons legal again.
However, a year later, in the heat of the current election campaign, O’Toole could see that a promise to bring these weapons back into circulation wouldn’t likely go down well with the suburban crowd he needs to become prime minister.
So he decided to mislead voters about his intentions.
His platform, released last month, was clear: an O’Toole government would maintain the 1977 ban on fully automatic weapons. Nothing new there. What’s new is his promise to remove Trudeau’s 2020 order-in-council ban on the 1,500 semi-automatic weapons.
That certainly sounded like he would reverse Trudeau’s clampdown on a lot of very vicious weapons.
But O’Toole tried to reassure voters by insisting that he would “maintain a ban on assault weapons”—an assertion designed to mislead voters into wrongly believing he would preserve Trudeau’s ban on semi-automatic weapons (which, to most people, would fall into the category of “assault weapons”).
When reporters questioned O’Toole closely, he wouldn’t budge; he simply repeated over and over again that he intended to “maintain a ban on assault weapons”—apparently making a distinction between fully-automatic assault weapons and semi-automatic assault-style weapons.
For victims on the receiving end, the difference between automatic and semi-automatic firearms may seem like splitting hairs—particularly because “bump stocks” or similar gun accessories are routinely used to effectively transform semi-automatic weapons into fully-automatic weapons.
Certainly, to argue that a plan to legalize some 1,500 horrific rapid-fire, semi-automatic weapons is consistent with maintaining “a ban on assault weapons” fits comfortably into the bullshit category.
Indeed, by the weekend, as he seemed threatened to be drowned in his own verbal waste, O’Toole abruptly shifted ground, claiming he would not lift Trudeau’s 2020 ban on “assault-style” weapons—at least not until there had been a review of gun classifications.
But this was simply more deviousness. Instead of lifting the ban right away, an O’Toole government would wait until its appointed team of gun enthusiasts—which he has promised would include gun owners and manufacturers—has carefully reviewed the matter and concluded that, yes, it is safe to remove the 2020 ban, as promised in the Conservative platform.
The malodorous scent of “Friendly Oil”
Then there was O’Toole’s statement last week that Canadian energy producers are “environmentally and socially leaders in comparison with other energy producers”—a deliberately confusing claim meant to obscure Canada’s poor record on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by hiding it behind Canada’s relatively good record on human rights, even though the two have nothing to do with each other.
Trying to “fact-check” O’Toole’s statement, Toronto Star reporter Lex Harvey contacted the Conservative campaign which forwarded her a copy of a Bank of Montreal report entitled “The 400 Billion Barrel Opportunity for Friendly Oil, and Canada’s Evolving Role.”
Of course, we know we’re deep in bullshit territory when one of the fuels causing raging fires, sweltering heat domes, and devastating floods is described as “Friendly Oil.”
Renowned climatologist Michael Mann has described Alberta’s oilsands as “one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet.”
But, just like earlier attempts by the ultra-right to package Alberta’s oil as “ethical,” O’Toole and the BMO crowd rest their claim on the fact that Canada has a better human rights record than other oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia.
That’s true—but completely irrelevant.
Canada’s human rights record is no more relevant to our performance in tackling climate change than it is to our performance in curbing inflation or the spread of the Delta variant. Would we use the adjective “friendly” to describe our inflation rate or our daily number of COVID cases, on the grounds that we have a good human rights record?
O’Toole’s argument is clearly gibberish. But it reveals that he has no qualms about deliberately concealing Canada’s terrible record in fighting climate change, despite the fact that our only hope of preserving the Earth as a livable place involves us waking up and actually engaging in that climate fight.
Surely anything that tries to convince us we’re doing fine, that Canada is a world leader in the climate battle—even as we pump ever-larger amounts of ultra-destructive oil out of the ground is bullshit of the highest order.
It certainly deserves that ranking when we consider that privileged humans will likely be able to protect themselves from the worst ravages of climate chaos. Even as parts of the world become uninhabitable, the wealthy will no doubt live behind high walls in parts of the world where the sun still shines and gentle breezes blow.
There’s something especially pernicious about lies that prevent us from saving ourselves, even as the liars are able to save themselves.
“Really everything is fine; reports of an iceberg are false,” says the captain reassuringly as he and his senior officers help women and children out of the lifeboats—and then prepare to get into the boats themselves.
- Linda McQuaig is author of The Sport & Prey of Capitalists