Is It Bad Faith Or A 'Fog Of Ideology And Error'?

Is It Bad Faith Or A 'Fog Of Ideology And Error'?

I believe in my bones that failing to identify a person's bad-faith arguments is the missing ingredient in our deteriorating, endlessly confusing, and ultimately futile 21st century cultural and political discourse.

Those on the left – far more prone to earnestly believe in causes and to (foolishly) assume everyone operates similarly – can be driven to the brink of madness if they do not accept the geyser of bad faith springing from the right. You've done it, I've done it, we've all done it: Present information and sourcing and all manner of proof that you are, in fact, correct, and they are, in fact, incorrect, only to be rebuffed. You battle to a draw and you're left to stew in your boiling pot of frustration and impotence, exhausted and aggitated. The question arises: Why even try?

It's exhausting, this need – again, mostly among liberals and leftists – to engage in an unwinnable Battle Of Ideas. It's a conflict rigged from the start because you're arguing with someone who claims to believe something they do not actually believe. If good faith is useless and bad faith is nihilistic, we're left with no faith – an outright refusal to engage with those claiming to believe things they cannot possibly believe (more guns will stop mass shootings, abortion is unsafe, the COVID vaccine has killed millions, things of that nature).

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What if I (we) conceded for a moment that the no-faith approach to political discourse is a dead end, and furthermore, presumptuous. How can we, after all, presume to know someone else's mind? This is the question Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs, posed to me in a recent exchange about infuriating Twitter posts from Glenn Greenwald, a right-wing provocateur and a veritable master of the bad faith arts.

Among Greenwald's many bad-faith pet theories is that American liberals (he's always sure to group leftists with liberals even if their priorities and goals are vastly different) are ideological slaves to the corrupt Security State. In Greenwald's telling, the left has unending devotion to the FBI and CIA, agencies created explicitly to squelch left-wing challenges to the status quo. He argues that American right wingers are the country's true dissenters, the real rebels, ready and willing to bring the Security State to heel and make the nation's security officials answer for their many misdeeds. Greenwald conveniently – and intentionally – ignores that the far right's hatred of the CIA and FBI stems from their refusal to let Big Daddy Trump and his allies do crimes.

The Security State did not fall in line with the Big Boy and his criminal administration, and for that, it must suffer. The Republican-controlled House is going to see that it does. The Security State did not actively participate in the overthrow of the U.S. government on January 6, 2021 – that's what the right is mad about. Law enforcement was supposed to get on board with the coup (some of them did). Greenwald knows this and chooses to ignore it. That, in my humble estimation, is bad faith.

Robinson disagreed, not because he thinks Greenwald is unaware of the FBI's history, but because we can't know exactly what he's thinking when he posts about liberals' adoration of the nation's security apparatus. Greenwald's posts, I told Robinson, were meant to create a reality in which the left was beholden to the evil CIA and FBI and were in cahoots with the government's most shadowy actors to silence dissent as we drift into some sort of authoritarian leftist hellscape (forget that there is no such thing as an authoritarian leftist in the US). Greenwald needs this narrative to be true if he's going to laud alleged sex trafficker Matt Gaetz as the brave soldier of democracy who will hold the Deep State accountable.

The key to an effective bad-faith argument is constructing a reality in which your charges can hold up to scrutiny. In this case, Republicans' fake outrage about FBI excesses during the Trump administration, and their plans to go after law enforcement after winning a House majority, offers a nice starting point for Greenwald to claim that American liberals are cheerleaders for the vile Deep State and support its myriad abuses of power.

Robinson agreed with this, in theory, but pushed back on dismissing claims like this as bad faith.

I think one reason I shy away from using the concept of bad faith is that it's extremely difficult to prove. I mean, yes, I find it hard to believe that Glenn does not know that leftists distrust the FBI, especially since every time he says this, people explain to him that he's wrong and show the proof. On the other hand, to argue that someone is acting in bad faith requires a claim to know the true state of their mind, and this is something that we cannot actually know if they consistently refuse to admit it. So Glenn will argue to the death that he means every word of what he says and that it's all correct (and then when you show that he's wrong, he'll just silently slink away). I think there's pretty strong evidence that he can't believe what he's saying, but to be honest, I think human beings have a remarkable capacity for sincere delusions. ... Because bad faith is so hard to prove, I tend to go the route of assuming for the sake of the argument that people believe everything they're saying and are sincere about it.

I don't think it matters that we don't have hard proof that Greenwald is acting in bad faith. If that's the bar we must clear, then we're condemned to a lifetime to breathlessly arguing in good faith with people who have no intention of reciprocating. Needing to prove someone's state of mind is nearly impossible in a courtroom – we see this when prosecutors go after racist killer cops. It's equally difficult (if less consequential) online.

My exchange with Robinson was not the first time I've considered charges of bad faith are, in essence, giving too much credit to the person with whom I'm arguing. I find myself, by default, telling terrible people that they are in fact intelligent and decent. We live, after all, with a toxic, all-consuming media culture that effectively splits reality into a trillion parts that can be pieced together however the viewer wants. A broken-brained baby boomer can take a dash of a Fox News talking point and throw it into the pot (their brain) with a deranged Newsmax segment and a couple hours of hate radio on the local AM station and a Twitter thread from a neo-nazi and wham, we have a third of the country sincerely believing Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin died of the COVID vaccine and the NFL is conducting a vast conspiracy to fool the public into believing Hamlin survived, deploying a Hamlin body double at Buffalo's Divisional Round game against the Bengals. Only in dystopia could such a twisted theory have such widespread adoption.

That tens of millions of Americans believe the Hamlin conspiracy – our own brain-poisoned family members included – is of course horrifying. That these folks truly believe the insane theory that the NFL, Bills players and coaches, and NFL media are covering up the death of a player means we can't dismiss it as bad faith. So what is there to do? Argue in good faith with someone so misguided, so easily tricked? There is no amount of evidence you could propose to a Hamlin-is-dead truther that would change their minds. Maybe that means there's no point in engaging with them, leaving a large and growing portion of the right-wing-media-consuming population to believe the COVID vaccine is killing pro athletes by the hundreds.

Acknowledging how easily it is to fool people into believing nonsense, Robinson told me, is why he chooses good faith. Screaming about bad faith gives our ideological opponents far too much credit, Robinson argued.

Someone who has been listening to and internalizing Fox talking points might really believe they're true. It's tempting to think that Glenn must know better. But to argue someone is in bad faith is almost to pay their intelligence a compliment. It says, you cannot be this dumb, you must be deliberately making arguments you do not believe. I don't know, though. The more I see of people's bullshit, the more I think that a lot of them believe it to their bones, and the thing that horrifies me is they're not being consciously dishonest, they're just living in a fog of ideology and error.

In his writing and analysis of cultural and political phenomenon, Robinson said he "basically takes the arguments on their own terms and does not discuss what people's motivations for making them are (Like, can Dinesh D'Souza possibly really believe that Trump is the new Lincoln?). I find it harder to show bad faith so I instead just show as convincingly as possible that whatever the motivations of the speaker, the argument is baloney."

I long ago swore off presenting evidence to people who do not care about evidence, or trying to shame people who cannot feel shame. I credit Robinson and others who make painstaking efforts to build a strong argument for more progressive tax policy or LGBTQ rights or COVID vaccinations or socialized healthcare. Gathering and presenting evidence supporting your stance in a way that sways readers and viewers is often terribly difficult and taxing. And yes, maybe such an approach will change the minds of those whose minds have not been completely corrupted by the ocean of disinformation in which we swim every hour of every day.

It could be that sort of mild influence among those in the so-called middle – people who aren't trapped forever in the far-right media fever dream – that makes a slow but steady difference in our politics. When these types come across an exchange between a bad faith performance artist like Greenwald and the inscrutably good-faith Robinson, maybe they'll be able to suss out who is being honest and who is very intentionally lying in hopes of crafting a more convenient political reality. Probably this is wishful thinking, but wishful thinking might be all we have left in our pitch-black dystopian discourse.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.