Bad Faith

When we realize the targets of our deceit are looking at us in the mirror.

15 min. read Replies open ↓

I was reticent to use the phrase “bad faith” in any of my writing here. It’s so connected in my mind to certain camps, and certain pushbacks against social justice, that I was worried my usage of it would be misinterpreted. And now that I’ve looked into the origins of the phrase, I am smitten with the irony.

A couple times now, I’ve used bad faith and good faith as a way of communicating a complicated idea with a simple phrase. Here’s how I would have defined it:

Bad Faith is entering a conversation with the pretense of engaging with the other person, but the ulterior motive of derailing the conversation toward your goal, regardless of what the other person says.

And Good Faith is the parallel idea:

Good Faith is entering a conversation with the intention of engaging with the other person, and co-creating a conversation together based on listening and learning.

These were the best definitions I could come up with to sum up the ways I used these phrases, and how I’d seen them used elsewhere.

The best part was I didn’t feel the need to define it. It’s something a lot of people, combining those two words, already get. They get that something un-ideal is going on.

I was firmly on the side of “we need to be having good faith conversations with others if we want to accomplish the goals of social justice,” but I also knew that the only people I had ever heard use the phrases “good faith” or “bad faith” were, unfortunately, anti-social-justice people. Hence the reticence.

Then I used “bad faith” while I was talking about the “unconscious bias and internalized oppresion two-punch combo”. I couldn’t find a better phrase to use, so I decided to let down my guard and go with the words that made the most sense.

At that point, I realized I had a bigger issue on my hands, and something entirely related to social justice dogma (SJD): the feeling that there was a lack of good faith surrounding anyone saying “bad faith.” (P.S. If you think that’s word salad, grab your favorite dressing, because you’re in for a solid tossing throughout the rest of this essay.)

Because I crossed the invisible line and used the phrase, I decided I should talk about why, and provide some of this context for anyone else using the phrases of “bad faith” and “good faith” in social justice settings.

My first step was to do what I always do when writing about a term or phrase: I researched its origins, to get a better sense of what it’s supposed to mean, and how that’s changed over time. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Makings of Bad Faith

For years, I’ve seen examples of what I felt was best described as “bad faith” all throughout the social justice movement. And those examples, when they happen, are things that lots of social justice people raise issue with, and attempt to pushback against (“Hey, maybe we shouldn’t…”), but they keep popping up. Like Whack-a-Mole.

And now I have a hunch why, and what’s going on underneath the surface in the machine that is resilient enough to pop up another mole as soon as one is whacked.

To explain what I mean, let me first share what I learned when I looked into the origins of the phrase “bad faith.” There are so many interesting tidbits in its etymology that parallel my writing about SJD, including connections to religion, hearts and minds, and even war crimes. That last one is so outrageous I’m going to start with it.


Perfidy is “a form of deception in which one side promises to act in good faith… with the intention of breaking that promise once the unsuspecting enemy is exposed.”

Does that sound familiar? If not, no worries, I’ll connect the dots. First, one more bit of definition:

Perfidy constitutes a breach of the laws of war and so is a war crime, as it degrades the protections and mutual restraints developed in the interest of all parties, combatants and civilians.”

Perfidy, and acting in bad faith in this way, is considered a war crime. With so many conversations about social justice conjuring up war analogies, I found this particularly unsettling. Even in literal war, where the goal is to harm, maim, and kill, perfidy is against the rules.

“Yes, yes, get along with the massacre. Just don’t promise you’re acting in good faith then attack someone when their guard is down. That, friends, is wrong.

When I was talking about the bad faith way we use “unconscious bias” and “internalized oppression” to attack people, I used an analogy of a covert pirate ship offering help, then plundering once they’re allowed aboard. When I wrote that, I was simply trying to make a moral argument. I didn’t know about the connection between good/bad faith and perfidy.

And now I have a new litmus test that I can use for any behavior that we support in the name of social justice: it’s not just whether it is enacting an injustice now in the name of justice later, but “Is it prohibited by the Geneva Conventions?” If it is, maybe we should avoid doing it, and not encourage it.

That is, if the thing we’re doing is tantamount to a war crime, we do something else instead.

“Double-mindedness” & “Double-Heartedness”

The terms “double-mindedness” and “double-heartedness” come up a lot when you dig into the etymology of “bad faith.” They’re wonderful words that immediately evoke a sense of betrayal.

In my noticings of bad faith throughout Social Justice Land, I was always focused on duplicity in the sense that people were deceiving others. It felt like whenever someone was operating from a starting place of bad faith, they were misleading, tricking, or manipulating others.

I hadn’t considered the ways we betray ourselves, or the more literal interpretation of “faith that isn’t good, or strong.” Uncertain faith.

I found that in the writings of Kierkegaard he devoted entire passages to double-mindedness, distilling down two types:

“The first type of double-mindedness, that of willing [i.e., motivating oneself] for the sake of reward or out of fear of punishment, is akin to the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic values.”

Being motivated out of fear of punishment sounds a lot like SJD to me. And the distinctions between types of incentives and intrinsic or extrinsic rewards was a big part of what I wrote about in moving us away from Hearts & Minds Activism.

Here, Kierkegaard is saying that being double-minded is a form of self-contradiction: you’re thinking two things, one is what you believe to be right, the other is what you’re told is right, and you go with the externally-motivated truth.

“The second type of double-mindedness, that of willing only to a certain degree, is akin to distraction or half-hearted willing.”

Here’s where “half-heartedness” comes in. That is, your heart isn’t entirely into it.

The connection between double-mindedness (self-contradiction) and double-heartedness (being of two hearts, on in it, and one not) and bad faith is almost exculpatory: it says that when we’re acting in bad faith, we’re not necessary acting with bad intentions.

We’re just internally conflicted, not fully resolute in our mind and heart, but we put on appearances and act as though we are.

Acting in bad faith is as much a crisis of faith as it is perfidy, and if that’s starting to conjure ideas of religion, that’s no contradiction.

There’s a Bible Verse for That

So much of Judeo-Christian ethics, which is the basis for a lot of our moral arguments, laws, and norms (whether we’re “Judeo-Christian” ourselves or not), goes back to a few words in a very old book. In the case of bad faith, obviously this is true. At least it should have been obvious to me, but I didn’t know.

I had been using the phrases “good faith” and “bad faith” in an entirely secular way, or so I had thought, because I had learned them and seen them used in secular spaces. Philosophy classes, debates, and so on. The idea that it would be derived from “good Christian faith” had eluded me.

But here we are, quoting the Bible:

James 1:8 - “Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”

Another translation (the New Living Translation) of the same verse:

“Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.”

This is a theme that comes up a few times in the Bible. The idea that acting in bad faith is being double-minded (or double-souled), where you are torn between acting in accordance with two sets of laws, or two priorities. For example, the laws of God versus the laws of man. Or serving your god, versus serving yourself.

Unsurprisingly, the conclusion in the scripture is that one should be of a single mind, and that mind should be made up by the law of God:

Psalm 119:113 - “I hate double-minded people, but I love your law.”

SJD operates much like a church, and the authorities we revere, while we’d never think of them as God or gods, hold an absolute power. They’re not to be questioned. Their word is law.

Taking this back to philosophy, we can suggest a reason for bad faith. That is, we can try to answer “Why would someone have bad faith, or act in bad faith?”

One answer is the Kierkegaardian explanation of bad faith I shared earlier:

Because we recognize a contradiction between what we’re being told to believe by our god(s), and what we actually think makes sense.

Bad Faith Squared

When I initially began writing about bad faith, I had a clear thesis mind: “Bad faith is bad, and we need to stop acting in bad faith in social justice contexts.” The solution: “Engaging in good faith!”

And now I’m not so sure.

I spent the better part of a day reading old Kierkegaard, passages from the Bible and Christian theologist’s expositions, and entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (something approximating my own personal Bible).

If you know me even a little bit, “Sam’s reading the Bible again” is a cause for concern.

What I realized, in doing all my digging, was that I was actually acting in bad faith against “bad faith.” What a tangled web we weave, amiright?

This probably should have surprised me, but it was a feeling I’ve become acquainted with: recognizing that I thought I knew something, then, upon thorough consideration, was really only acting as though I knew something, all in the name of social justice.

One of the more staggering and early examples of this was a conversation I was having with my cousin about Privilege Theory. He was visiting me in Austin, and we were at one of my favorite spots to get veggie burger, halfway through our lunch. This was years ago, well into my time of being a professional social justice person, but before I had started to explore social justice dogma.

I shared with my cousin a truism of Privilege Theory: “Privilege isn’t like pie. We’re not saying that we want to take away the privileges you have, as a person with your identities, to give them to someone else who has marginalized identities.”

We’d say this in the face of pushback from dominant group members to comfort them that we’re not trying to make things hard or worse for them: we’re trying to make things a little better (or less terrible) for everyone else.

As an embodied mixture of my frustration and gratitude, my cousin is a lawyer, so he’s trained to spot bad thinking, and he’s good at arguing for the truth. He pushed back.

He said something like, “That can’t be the case. You’re asking for people who, right now, have everything arranged for them, to give that up. It will make their lives harder, when right now they’re easier.”

I’d heard that before, so I pushed back how I always did, ready to squash it. Then he pushed back. And so we went for quite awhile. I was arguing what I thought was the truth, but would soon learn was actually dogma. I had bad faith.

This crystallized when I had run out of examples, citations, and supporting theory to make my case – my cousin thoughtfully considering each, then pointing out the gap that still remained – and I knew that I only had one move left: attack him personally, or admit he was right.

It’s not exaggerating to say I had a breakdown.

The hundreds, or maybe thousand, of times I’d said that “truism,” and argued it in bad faith, never having actually done the work to figure out if it was true or not, or if it served our overall goals of social justice, raced through my mind like a stop motion video of deceit.

Me on stage, arguing that to thousands of people. In one on ones with other dominant group members, convincing them they were misunderstanding. On panels. In trainings. In writing.

The thing that hit me the hardest was that I realized that I had been assuming that anyone throughout those years who had pushed back was doing so in bad faith. That they couldn’t actually fully and truthfully believe what they were saying. That they just hadn’t “done the work.” That they were saying what they wanted to be true, or merely repeating what they had been taught to say (by society, by oppression, etc.).

Knowing my cousin, and trusting his intentions, I extended good faith to him. I actually listened. I bound myself to arguing truthfully and I not relying on fallacies (granted, he helped), or “Just trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” Because I didn’t.

In the end, I didn’t attack him (one of Fallacious Arguing’s Greatest Hits: the ad hominem). I conceded. He was right, and I was oh so very wrong.

I felt a pit in my stomach, and it wasn’t the half pound of sweet potato fries I had just stress eaten.

One Cannot Serve Two Masters

Is another Bible verse incoming? Yes, but don’t sound the alarm just yet. The rabbit hole of “bad faith” popped me out on the other side remembering this idea:

Matthew 6:24 - “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

As I’ve seen more and more examples of bad faith in social justice arguments, positions, stances, and just the general ways people engage with others.

The ways we create false dichotomies of “us” and “them,” for example, when social justice is really about all of us. Or the ways we write people off, toss them aside as disposable, and over-react to pushback.

How we unify against nuance, and have increasingly started to view anyone who is advocating for nuance as siding with oppression, falling back on absolute ”-ism” language like “White Supremacist” where “bad” would probably be more accurate.

And all the paradoxes present in SJD, the self-contradicting “truths” we advance (like the “Pay Them” Paradox), that don’t paint a path forward for us to walk so much as they draw a line in the sand between being a good person and a bad person. “If you don’t agree, you’re not one of us.”

It’s now clear to me that bad faith isn’t reinforcing social justice dogma, and something we need to confront and diminish in order to move toward living social justice. That was my original thesis, but as I’ve shared above, my mind was open to being changed, and it changed.

I now see all the bad faith as a symptom of social justice dogma, and as little glimpses of resistance to the authority of SJD, cracks in the foundation, signs that SJD might be giving way to something else, opportunities to move forward toward something more authentic.

It’s like we’re simultaneously trying to serve two masters: one is social justice dogma, the absolute authority and no questions needed “correct” way to think, believe, and act right now, even if it’s not getting us closer to where we want to go; and the other is living, breathing, actualized and authentic living social justice, the goals we’re trying to accomplish, and the steps we’ll need to take to get there.

Whenever I see someone acting in bad faith now, I won’t help but be able to see the conflict inside of them: less perfidy and more double-mindedness, recognition of the self-contradictory nature of SJD, and the lack of paths forward offered by those strategies, living social justice struggling to emerge.

Where SJD has risen as a faith system of sorts, it stands ostensibly in opposition to oppression. But it can’t exist without oppression, without the inequitable power dichotomies that fuel oppression, and therefore it feels ill-suited to move us beyond these systems.

I’m seeing that as something many of us are coming to realize, albeit slowly, or in isolation from one another. It creates a double-mindedness and a double-heartedness of “I know this won’t make sense in the future I’m trying to create, but it’s a sacrifice and a compromise of what is right that I’m willing to make in order to get there.”

Or a specific example: “When the Patriarchy is dismantled, I’ll stop being so cruel to men and start caring about their feelings. Until then, #sorrynotsorry.”

We’re serving the master of SJD, and in doing so forsaking living social justice.

To wrap all this up, and to reassure my friends who are getting ready to call me after seeing all of these Biblical references, here’s John Hare in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy talking about “Religion and Morality”:

“To recognize that this project does not make sense is required by honesty, and to hide this from ourselves is ‘bad faith’. One form of bad faith is to pretend that there is a God who is giving us our tasks. Another is to pretend that there is a ‘human nature’ that is doing the same thing. To live authentically is to realize both that we create these tasks for ourselves, and that they are futile.”

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