The deceptive allure of crying 'bad faith'
Can't we presume that anyone who bothers to string together a series of assertions in print or online actually means it?
It's destructive to have a president who lies constantly, flagrantly, flamboyantly. Matters get even worse when leading members of his party and media cheerleaders do the same, endorsing conspiracies and pushing blatant falsehoods in order to protect their political tribe. Before long, the culture of transparent BS permeates everything — even the way private citizens view each other.
Witness how often and quickly people on different sides of public debates accuse one another of "bad faith." The charge is ubiquitous online, especially on Twitter, where a testy debate about politics, policy, or culture rarely goes more than a round or two before people start calling out each other's hypocrisy, insincerity, intellectual dishonesty, and intentional deception and dissimulation.
This epidemic of imputations of bad faith is partly a function of unusually high levels of partisan polarization in our political culture. Just as Republicans and Democrats in Congress now barely overlap at all, so the common ground shared by citizens from different ideological standpoints has grown narrower and narrower in recent years. The result is arguments in which participants share few if any relevant premises. When that happens, the debate can resemble an attempted conversation between people who are fluent in entirely different languages and lack a translator to help them understand each other. Each might as well be speaking gibberish.
In such a situation, it's tempting to imagine that one's opponent is deliberately spouting a fog of nonsense in order to pollute the conversation rather than reach truth or achieve clarity. When our public life is dominated by powerful people (from the president on down) who are undeniably doing precisely that, the temptation becomes irresistible to see such malign motives at work all around us.
The problem, though, is that bad faith is rarely obvious. In the most extreme cases, the deliberate indifference to truth may be undeniable. But short of that, the charge presumes a capacity to see into the souls of other individuals, detecting evidence of an intent to deceive behind what on the surface simply look like claims, assertions, and arguments about the reality of the world we all share.
These claims are taken as evidence of intentional deception in part because the enormous ideological distance that separates those on different sides of political and culture debates these days breeds mutual suspicion and lack of understanding. But it's also a product of the social media ecosystem and the frantic pursuit of online attention, which encourages people to deploy brazen hyperbole and outright trolling in their writing and tweeting.
Trolling is a form of deliberate rhetorical provocation — the statement of one's own position in the boldest, most obnoxious manner possible. Sometimes the trollish statement is made purely for the sake of eliciting anger on the other side or rallying support on one's own. But even when it appears designed to advance an argument, the refusal to make any concession to opponents, to engage with what those who disagree actually believe to be true, is poisonous. In extreme cases, which are becoming the most common cases, this take-no-prisoners approach to argument can give the impression that truth is completely beside the point.
But that doesn't mean the impression is accurate. Conservative writer Kevin Williamson's way of arguing is extremely hyperbolic, for example. But there's no reason at all to suppose that his decision to play a troll online is a sign that he's being insincere in staking out an almost absurdly radical stance on abortion. (It remains somewhat unclear whether Williamson actually believes that women who've had abortions would ideally be punished by hanging, or if he has merely defended such a position on occasion in order to make a debater's point about what the pro-life position entails both morally and legally.) The same could be said about a long list of provocative writers, left, right, and center.
To insist otherwise — to claim that the deployment of strident rhetoric is an automatic sign of bad faith or intellectual dishonesty — is itself a form of trolling. Call it counter-trolling, the matching of hyperbole with equal and opposite hyperbole.
Better to presume that anyone who bothers to string together a series of assertions in print or online actually means it. Our ideological opponents can be unwise, wrong, thoughtless, or deceived. Their arguments can be bad, invalid, contradictory, or self-refuting. But the motives behind them? That we will never know for sure.
Pretending otherwise is a fool's game we'd all be better off refusing to play.