Bad faith is both a symptom and a cause of the death of truth. It is the cancerous outgrowth of both-sidesism. Its prevalence is a foundational failing, pure rot.
More succinctly, the dominance of bad-faith politics makes it impossible for us to have nice things.
Political discourse, as awful and fraught as it's become, is poisoned by those who willfully and strategically operate in bad faith, a phenomenon that has hurled us into a post-truth climate in which reality is subjective and malleable and, for many, nonexistent. Savvy political operators – Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey, and a veritable army of bad-faith wannabes and hangers on – make political debates and discussions impossible by refusing to take good-faith positions. They are, in other words, saying what they don't mean in order to cater to one audience (the right wing) while flummoxing those coming from a more genuine (and hopelessly naive) position, hoping against hope we can have and improve upon shared systems, and most of all, agreeing on what is and is not true.
And yes, bad faith is wielded exclusively by the right. Sorry if that upsets your sense of balance or your lazy, dull-headed belief that all politics are the same.
The thousand-foot firehose of bad faith serves to short circuit any meaningful political discussion we might want to have on the god forsaken internet or in god forsaken real life. Bad faith arguments have defined the early part of the 21st century, as conservatives have expertly wielded duplicitous arguments to capture power and whittle away at democratic guardrails that no longer exist in any meaningful way. They have carefully used bad-faith politics to shape the way we talk and think, creating legions of gullible people who – consciously or unconsciously – batter their friends and family and coworkers and strangers online with deceitful, purposefully dishonest arguments passed down from Bad Faith Laboratories, Inc.
Bad faith takes many forms, always supremely disingenuous and designed to achieve a specific political goal. The right and its allies will feign outrage to get someone fired, even if it means putting on a serious face and pretending to care about sexual harassment or racial discrimination. Twitter, in particular, has given conservatives the ideal platform to performatively rail against their opponents. You can be whoever you want on Twitter and you can say anything, whether or not it's your actual position. Take, for instance, right wingers who – with a smirk and a wink to their intended audience – shame those concerned with Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter by labeling Musk an African-American. Musk, of course, is the product of brutal white colonizers who have immiserated and denigrated generations of Black Africans. You know that. They know that. But it doesn't matter. You're now a racist if you have some misgivings about the world's richest man buying our digital public square.
Among my earliest memories of the frightening power of bad-faith politics was the ruination of Shirley Sherrod, an official in President Obama's Department of Agriculture and a Black woman who was accused of racism against a white farmer by former right-wing media mogul and current underground worm food Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart's video of Sherrod discussing her dealings with this white farmer were carefully edited to make Sherrod look as blatantly hateful and discriminatory as possible, exacerbating conservatives' ultimate fear that black and brown folks would seek revenge against the White Devil with Obama in the White House ("what if they treat us like we've treated them" was a real fear in those days). Breitbart took about three minutes of a 43-minute video in which Sherrod told a tale of racial reconciliation and harmony and turned it against her and the administration. Breitbart, who dropped dead shortly thereafter, feigned outrage about racial discrimination against hard-working, salt-of-the-earth white people in Obama's America. He knew it was a lie. That was the point.
Sherrod was hastily fired because spineless Democrats engaged in good faith politics, either refusing to or unable to comprehend Breitbart's bad-faith expertise. Obama administration officials operated as if Breitbart – a known liar and master manipulator – was reporting in good faith.
The right-wing hatchet job against Sherrod was a prime example of how bad faith can become the good-faith stance for millions of people. Almost everyone gobbling up the fake Sherrod scandal on Fox News during the first months of the Obama presidency saw what Breitbart wanted them to see: A radical Black activist put in charge of a government agency so she could seek revenge against the white folks who had harmed her. Taking this at face value, these consumers of far-right news were afraid – not pretending to be afraid, but genuinely scared. Their fear and their requisite response was in good faith.
Breitbart's bad faith had been transmuted into good faith, a death sentence for the truth.
There's no use in calling out bad faith to those deploying the strategy. Shouting into the online void about bad-faith politics is akin to standing up in class and screeching "No fair!" It gets you nowhere and, importantly, makes you look like an idiot. Which is the point: To twist you into a pretzel of frustration and confusion and, eventually, fury, until you look like a dumb piece of shit or you simply give up and move on. Even the best intentioned people have their limits, and bad-faith operators are determined – and quite good – at finding those limits. They push and push, pretending they believe what they're saying, until you break. Once you've broken, they've won. Cynicism has won the day. Notch another win for the bad guys.
What I'll try to do here is to identify the most egregious bad-faith arguments swaying political and cultural discourse both in online hell and in the terrifying real world. Will doing so solve the pernicious effects of bad faith on our cultural and political discourse? It will not. Could it help us better understand the contours of the issues being infected by arguments from Bad Faith Laboratories, Inc.? That's my hope.
I – like you, perhaps – want to grasp this phenomenon while it eats away at the brain of the body politick. Maybe that wakes someone – or multiple someones – to the baneful impacts of bad-faith politics before they're too far gone.
Denny Carter is on Twitter @CDCarter13. Follow him for maximum alienation.