By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
A sophist is someone who reasons with clever but fallacious and deceptive arguments. (The same root as "sophisticated," sophism then is fake sophistication, it makes the meaningless sound sophisticated.) The roots of sophism goes back to ancient Greece and the father of Western philosophy, Socrates, hated sophists. He stated, "The unexamined life is not worth living," in part to combat sophism — his whole philosophy existed to combat sophism because sophists disguised meaninglessness with confusion, and they argued for not examining life because that would reveal truth, and they could not control truth. And if everyone knew the truth, no one would need sophists. It was in their best interests that people did not examine their lives. But the examining of life to reveal truth and knowledge has become known as Socratic questioning. Sophists have won the mainstream audience but Socratic questioning is the basis for all mental therapy. Then consider what is the enemy of good mental health? Eventually everyone in ancient Greece hated sophists.
The sophist transitions smoothly from their bag of tricks: rhetoric, cons, and bullshit. I see these con-artists most often in the wellness industry where they try to convince you that being shallow, anorexic, with poor self-image is somehow inspiring, deep, and meaningful. Of course they want you to believe that, they want your money and the more they can keep your self-esteem low, the more you will keep buying self-esteem from them. But if it truly was meaningful rather than self-serving, why would you need so much convincing and explanation, along with mental gymnastics, to try and understand?
Nothing they say makes sense, and everything they say contradicts itself, that's how bullshit works. But we somehow believe if it sounds confusing, it must be deep and true. It’s what George Orwell warned in 1984; he called it double-speak, where you talk as if two contradictions are true: slavery is freedom, control is liberation, hate is love, ignorance is knowledge, contradiction is truth. This is the hypocrisy of hating your fat to love yourself.
Consider this illiberal irony for a moment, it is acceptable to be gay, but it is unacceptable to be fat. Consistent liberal thinking should be: both are acceptable. But that is the power of persuasive rhetoric used by sophists in bikinis, or low-hanging board shorts, where up is down and down is up. Perhaps this explains their obsession with downward dog. But that's not a joke, the mystical and "exotic" are constantly used as methods of off-balancing, the same methods used by magicians and hypnotists. It affirms the belief that things aren't supposed to make sense and that we are incapable of understanding, and somehow that's a good thing. This is no different than the rationality walls the religious create when pushed to examine their beliefs: "God works in mysterious ways," "You must have faith," and "It is not for me to understand." The only thing that changes is, rather than God, you would say "universe." And rather than having a minister to lean on, you have a guru or a bikini sophist, who doesn't need evidence because they speak from divine truth. Economist Thomas Sowell calls this the vision of the anointed, "a worldview concocted out of fantasy impervious to any real-world considerations." And no matter the body of evidence against them, they remain revered, just as any other mystic figure. But since what they are peddling isn't necessarily religion, though psychologically it is, it's harder to detect. It's not obvious, and nothing is being explicitly said, which is the cunning language use of the sophist — though manipulative, it's vague enough to avoid consequence.
Here are some bikini mantras, translated from double-speak:
- Focus all of your time on your superficial needs so you can better serve others.
- Obsessively track and measure your body and criticize and judge it so you can be free of judgment and live in peace.
- Remind yourself every day how you're not good enough so that you can know you're good enough.
- Do something superficial to prove you are not superficial.
- Measuring yourself and being surrounded by mirrors and picture-taking means the opposite of what it means.
- Open your mind until your mind falls out.
- Hurting you is helping you.
- Sexism is feminism.
- Mindless is mindful.
- Obsession is passion.
- Stalking is romance.
- Losing your mind is finding the truth.
- Punishment is self-love.
- Pretending to be happy is the same as being happy.
- Envy others but also be envied, but don't call it envy.
- Compete with yourself and with others so you can be noncompetitive.
- Dehumanize your body to humanize yourself.
- Think of yourself as separate body parts so that you may find wholeness.
- Take pictures of yourself to prove that you don't need pictures of yourself to prove that you are happy.
- And most of all, don't forget to tag your fitness sophist in your pictures so that they may recognize you.
In psychology, this is called “gaslighting,” a form of manipulation where you overwrite someone’s reality (for instance, a husband who gaslights his wife into believing abuse is love). It’s a tactic most commonly used by narcissists — but who are most likely to become fitness sophists than narcissists? Who else would find daily swimsuit selfies to be enjoyed by others an ordained part of life?
And like a cult, they will warn you that no one will get it. The ones who question are "haters." Good sophists will preemptively shut the door to anyone talking reason to you. Then, the only words you can trust comes from the sophist. They gain all your power. Theirs is the only truth (and everything else is fake news). And like any good cult, they make it about emotions, because logic is the enemy. Crying, breakthroughs, anger is all good because they all lead us away from reason. It won't be easy to show people the con either, as half the work, if not more, is done by the victim. One of the key parts of the con is motivated reasoning, they create a story, and make people want to believe it so much, they convince themselves. Motivated reasoning is when we believe something not because it is true, but because we want it to be true. We think we deserve it and are great justifiers for our decisions. And in this instance, to be vain and deep at the same time. In The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time, Maria Konnikova writes:
So if people accuse the sophists of certain tactics, their victims will deny it, and they probably aren't lying, because those techniques, the victims applied to themselves. But the victims are so good at self-deception, they will lead the defense for the sophist (in real life, often victims of con-artists pay for the con-artist's legal fees). They will take this as proof: see, since I convinced myself, this proves I wasn't mislead. But a good con-artist doesn't apply obvious techniques, they create a narrative so compelling, they get you to tell the story to yourself over and over again. They give you confidence. Konnikova writes:
On the stages of a con, Konnikova writes:
Anorexia, bulimia, and body dysmorphia have not only been implied, but some sophists, who got tired of their own deceptions, have explicitly said these disorders are good, just misunderstood, and that others will never understand. This movement is called pro-ana, ana for anorexia. Why fight what seems so natural, they say. How can it be wrong to follow what gives us bliss, and if that's what our desires want, and society rewards how we look, then it must be good, so long as we don't say pro-ana publically, just in private message boards and texts. In a way it makes sense, it takes so long and it's so tiring to constantly double-speak, they just want to get to the point: support me while I starve myself to nonexistence; teach me what supplements to take so I can stay alive without having to eat; tell me how pretty I am. The ultimate goals are the same, yet we hate them for their honesty. Sort of like the old saying, you can think it, but don't say it. Yet what's more dangerous, the obvious wolf or the wolf in sheep's clothing? That's why domestic terrorism is the most dangerous, they can't be spotted because they look like us. Pro-ana will mostly affect people on the margins, then what's most dangerous is mainstream toxic culture, the culture society is willing to accept.
But pro-ana will not scare anyone, it will not have society come to its senses to wipe away toxic culture. The opposite happens, it allows people to say, well, see, we're not like that. I'm good, they're bad. But what's the difference? Is the message different or is the severity of the message different? We can't use pro-ana to excuse sophist deceptions if the only difference is one notch on the dial — to say it, or just to imply it. But does beating around the bush make it better? If you go to a pro-ana message board, the comments are nearly identical to a lot of diet message boards, only the names of the boards are different. Otherwise the same talk, the same fitspiration, and the same memes.
Look at the way you should eat and exercise, as reward and punishment. And it's not a workout unless you've punished yourself enough for your sins. But that's not unhealthy, it's sold as inspirational. In a cult, this used to be called flagellation, and the reasoning is the same: for love, to expunge sin and toxins. Cleanse, detox, baptize, purify, the sophists still use the same pseudo-religious rhetoric. On Instagram, yoga studios and gyms are routinely referred to as church. Maybe it's not conscious, but our unconscious minds are making the connection. Yet, because these bikini sophists are skinny and tanned and smiling in their pictures with a beautiful sunset in the background, we think they are onto something. And of course they are onto something, they are onto making money off of us, and that makes them happy.
It becomes a sort of porn — its own form of visual and mental masturbation, where the mix of words and images overload our senses, confusing us, but it's still titillating. And we want others to feel that way from our presence, confused and titillated. We convince ourselves (or are convinced) that doing this is empowering and that it somehow benefits the world, that we are good people. But we never actually feel good about it because it never means anything, and it never seems like we're actually doing any good, only pleasure-seeking and self-taking. Hence all the explanations online, using pictures and words as our persuasive essay, but we are only partially trying to convince others, we're really trying to convince ourselves. And whenever we don't feel convinced, when we doubt, we post another persuasive essay.
And every once in awhile we have moments of clarity where we understand this, and we break up with our abusers, only to eventually get back with them because we think this time will be different. This is the vicious cycle of the abused.
But if we are going to go deep, let's go deep, not pretend deep. If it's supposed to be philosophical and meaningful then what do philosophers say? And according to existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the chase for aesthetics and pleasure only lead to despair (disease of the spirit), feeding our earthly needs but starving our soul. But Jesus and Buddha said the same thing. Friedrich Nietzsche would call this the bodily life, but what Nietzsche and so many thinkers and spiritualists argued for was the existential life, an existence with meaning. And according to neuroscience, consciousness is about meaning. The chief rule of science and philosophy is coherence, and if it does not have any, the academic term is known as "bullshit." Again, I'm not joking; there's whole research done on "bullshit" and why people fall for profound-sounding nonsense. On that, philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt defines bullshit as speech intended to persuade without regard for truth, whereas the liar cares about the truth but attempts to hide it. In his seminal work On Bullshit, Frankfurt writes:
On further elaboration of bullshit, he writes:
Frankfurt continues by saying:
Why did Socrates along with other philosophers despise sophists so? Because it was the age of reason. How do we make order of the world? Reason requires knowledge and study — work. When there is a gap we do not understand, we must do our due diligence and research and find evidence, do experiments, these are the methods to figure out what is true. In sophistry wordplay is used instead of logic or reason. Sophist can enter any debate with zero knowledge of it beforehand, and draw conclusions and make arguments — all they need are words. But now in the age of digital media, they don't even need words, they only need images. If people are starting at point A and sophists want to take them to point B, they don't fill in the middle with science or proof, they use bullshit. And with bullshit, they can always create a narrative to whichever conclusion they wish. Rather than knowing it is based on belief, how do you get unhappy people to believe unhappiness is the path to happiness? Through bullshit, through sophistry. The horizon looks round, but I want people to believe the earth is flat, how do I get them there? Through sophistry. I make a meme about a flat earth. If I feel dirty, I should do a cleanse. There is no evidence that cleanses literally clean you but it doesn't matter, it's not about logic or evidence but my use of words, since I am using two different meanings for cleanse and making it sound like the same thing, people will make the jump in logic. There is cleanse as in cleaning dirty things and there is cleanse which is a juice product, and I take those two definitions and combine as one so like hypnosis I convince you a juice product will clean you. Here's another one: if you want to feel grounded, eat fruits that are close to the ground. So there's grounded, meaning feeling more secure, then there's grounded which means literally close to the ground, like, and through wordplay I make you believe those things mean one and the same. If I had if you want to feel secure, eat foods close to the ground. That doesn't make sense, right? But what's has changed? Nothing. Only my use of words. How about this, how would I get you to believe looking hot in a bikini will make you not only happy but fulfilled and humble? And do this in a way that doesn't make you feel vain? I can post a picture of a skinny beautiful woman at the beach, smiling, with the sun behind her and post a caption about "being radiant." Now there is radiance from the sun, which means emitted light, and then there's the figurative meaning which means happiness and love. That's still wordplay, or but it's closer to hypnosis and wordplay. I have no evidence that doing this will make you happier, and logic and reason says this chase will probably make you feel more empty and defeated, but through my use of words and images, I got you to make that logic jump. Because like religion, faith is about things that don't make sense but working out in mysterious ways. Ways in which you are not meant to understand. And when you explain it to friends, since you are not a con-artist, you will never be able to use the same word-play, you won't remember the trick with grounded and grounded or the double use of the word radiance. You will just say fruits low to the ground are better for me and will say being in a bikini in a sunset is much deeper than it sounds. It won't make sense to other people, they will think you are in a cult or have gone all woo-woo, when in reality, you are just susceptible and have been tricked.
Philosophers have wondered about what it means to live a happy life, and what they came up with was called eudaimonia. They actually figured this out thousands of years ago, and science has consistently confirmed this, which is why all of talk therapy is based on philosophy (Ph.D., a doctor of philosophy). And what is the eudaimonia? It's a life worth living. I once asked a friend of mine why she was killing herself and, frankly, giving herself neurosis and depression to get to a size nothing bikini. She thought for a while and said she wants to feel important. The intent, albeit misguided, is the same, she wants to live a life worth living. Perhaps society has taught her that that's not about how she lives but how she looks. Better to look the part of living a life worth living rather than living the part. You look good sounds better than good job. Isn't that why pictures are so important? As evidence that you look the part? You can have pleasures and distractions but remain fatalistic; it can still be a life not worth living, constantly fighting with despair. But if your life is meaningful, then no matter the displeasures, it's still a life worth living. Even the sophists know this, this is why sophists know to word things using the language of meaning, no matter how contradictory. If the emphasis was on pleasure, distraction, vanity, and hedonism, they know people would instantly be repulsed. (Which is why most won't go for pro-ana, and why mainstream bikini sophism then is more insidious.) And if not, they wouldn't stick with it for long. We stick with things if we believe it is meaningful. Why the emphasis on helping others and being a good person? They're compensating. When men do it about their love lives, it's called insecurity. When it's done to show how good a person you are, it's called virtue signaling. It constantly needs to be proved because there is none, and, in fact, a virtuous person would not signal, as that is not virtuous. But virtue signaling still requires a small amount of selfless kindness, and that's why it never works. But that's persuasion, making the meaningless meaningful (like a car salesman, this isn't a car, it's the American dream). This is why it will never be coherent, because it can't. However, like yin and yang, it's about opposites, and within the opposites, you will find balance. See what I did there? Gave you some bullshit, but even though it shouldn't make sense, it kind of makes sense. Because I compared something nonsensical to something that has merit, so you're transferring coherency from the thing that makes sense to the thing that doesn't. And a good sophist can do it better than I can, because to them, it's a language they've spoken since childhood. Sadly, they are probably victims of their own deception; after years of double-speak, even the sophist cannot recognize his or her own bullshit.
To prove how anything can sound sophisticated with sophism, in The End of Faith, neuroscientist Sam Harris applies bullshit to a Hawaiian seared-fish recipe:
So how has the bikini sophist never been exposed? Unfortunately, the deities of Instagram and Facebook fly under the radar of most academics, and their scrutiny. They fly in circles far away from academia, the academics are unaware of them and they are unaware of academics. And even if they were aware of the leaders in research, unlike religious leaders, bullshitters know better than to challenge academics to a televised debate. A religious leader still wants an opportunity to defend his or her truth, whereas a bullshitter doesn't care about truth.
Are these connections to religion completely out of bounds? Where are we getting this from? I am not mentioning religion or quoting the likes of well-known atheist Sam Harris and his book The End of Faith just to pull cute quotes. Though there have been suggestions on diet and exercise for health and vitality that goes back to Hippocrates of classical Greece, there was never an emphasis on thinness. That didn't happen until Christianity, which connected thinness with the punishment of the mortal flesh for glorification of God. (Remember my flagellation reference?) And from there this intellectual contagion morphed, in interpretations, culture, and even artist renderings. Hatred of fat became hatred of sin. Gluttony and largeness of size was not only immoral but deadly. This is the start of the lazy stereotype and weight as a vice. And the moralistic language that has gotten only worse over time. We use terms like epidemic or disease with obesity, as if contagious, lepers have diseases, and violence becomes epidemic. We make the most toxic of comparisons to our weight. French philosopher Michel de Montaigne already noticed this problem of self-hate during the Renaissance, he writes:
How awful an existence if we are trapped in a vessel we hate. People were already feeling that hundreds of years ago, then how bad is it now? Philosophers have tried to lead us away from this, but sophists keep leading us towards despising our own being. Insecurity and fear leads us to spend more money, we spend where we are lacking. Bikini sophists are the merchants of the marketplace, not intellectual improvers of society.
Tying it to religious belief is problematic from the start, but now that it's not even tied to orthodox religion with a prescription for salvation, it makes even less sense and offers nothing in the way of spiritual redemption. (It's a free-for-all with every salesman offering a path to purification.) Only, perhaps, social validation of sorts. Rather than how we think God views us, the viewpoint of others is the new God. Exercise is the new exorcism and the bikini sophists are the new clergy and like the olden days, they want their cut. And now we think everyone is fat, like we used to think everyone was a sinner. Then purity becomes that much more important, a backlash to all the ills of the world. And now that it's no longer constrained by old dogmas, it is free to be based on nothing. This gives it the freedom to spread to areas that would never accept Western religion, but perhaps it will accept Western ideals of thinness. And if it doesn't make sense, we can use spiritual language from any culture and belief system to justify it because now it is free and allowed to morph. Because it never stopped morphing since the beginning, an intellectual shape-shifting contagion. And we spread this neurosis and call it mindfulness. OCD became passion. Like a chronic hand-washer who washes until they bleed because they are dirty and impure. Like a chronic dieter who must wash away as much of their bodily flesh as possible to get as close to their birth weight as possible, closer to God's light, because they are dirty and impure. Because we are born of original sin. We ate what we shouldn't have been eating and that started everything. Sophists were popular once more.
Nothing I am saying is new or a revelatory in science, philosophy, and mental health. When tracking first-world countries, the conditions created by meaningless sophism are what increase depression and suicides. When the only meaning is derived from vanity, pleasure, comparison, and distraction. It's like chasing the bottom of a bowl, there's either misery in the effort, or you stop trying (however you take stopping to mean). (Why am I mentioning suicides? Since happiness and life satisfaction are subjective, the only objective scientific measure of societal happiness is tracking the changes in suicides. Therefore, though suicide seems much too sensitive of a topic to mention based on the subject matter, trying to be hot, and you wish people wouldn't take it so seriously, this relationship is still important as it sets the conditions for behavior — the life or death chase for effortless perfection — for purity.) Why? We want the approval of others. Our body is our conduit to feeling like we matter, that we mean something. But this happiness is external, and external circumstances are always out of our control. It's misguided because we don't want to connect others to connect others, we are doing it to make it about ourselves. That is why we lose meaning. Happiness has to come from within, any reasonable person will tell you that. It's about a life worth living, you exercise to live, you don't live to exercise. You eat healthy to live, you don't live to eat healthy. You have a healthy body to live a meaningful life, you don't live to acquire a healthy body. The sophists switch the consequences with the premise, and as a result sacrifice a meaningful life for natural byproducts. It's the same as a good person having lots of friends. A sophist would flip it and convince you having lots of friends means you are a good person, but in reality, you might have sacrificed virtue and goodness to have a lot of friends. You made natural allies, virtue and friendship, enemies. We make natural allies, health and meaningful living, enemies, sacrificing one for the other. When you go for a life worth living, you'll have beauty and a beautiful life, when you only go for beauty, you will have neither. Because beauty is based on approval and a person who sacrifices living will never get approval, and in psychological terms, their neuroses will damage their body. Your chase for physical beauty will hurt your mental health (because you will sacrifice it, obsession is version of passion, and other bullshit) which will destroy your physical beauty.
So how did we forget that life is about meaning? Unfortunately, that's how the arc of history goes. The Greeks knew the earth was round, then for nearly a thousand years, people forgot. History and facts get quickly forgotten, but "bullshit" can last thousands of years.