The Art of the Bad Faith Argument

If you use the internet, you’re surrounded by liars.

Painted masks are on all sides. Sad face, surprised face, crying-laughing face, smirking-demon face—but the eyes are black beads, and lifeless. 

Online discourse is obsessed with emotion and subjectivity, the tiny precise gradients of affect. Endless essays on anger (ours: valid, justified, full of moral urgency) (theirs: invalid, brutal, festering with hatred), shock, outrage, upset, trauma, and hurt. It’s a very impressive show, but it’s a distraction, a piece of performance art. The real function is to frantically cover up the fact that most of the time, most of us feel nothing at all. Screens burn holes through our brains and shrivel our genitals. You sit alone in a room. You look for things to upset you. 

The person who types “lol” is never actually laughing; the person who types I’M SCREAMING is silently dabbing at a screen. In the same way, the person who is perpetually shocked and outraged and brimming with righteous fury is almost always lying to themselves. They’re as affectless as the rest of us: play-acting, downloading synthetic emotions, and then passing them on. 

Welcome to the age of bad faith. 

Late last year, in the first televised debate before the UK general election, Jeremy Corbyn was asked a question about the murdered billionaire child-sex lizard Jeffrey Epstein and mispronounced his name. He called him Epshtine, not Epsteen. There’s a pretty obvious explanation for why he did that: he was trying to pronounce the name correctly and got it wrong. Hundreds of people, though, decided to think something else. 

Corbyn, they argued, was deliberately emphasising Epstein’s Jewishness. He was pronouncing his name wrong to make him seem foreign, to suggest that the Jews, with our nasty habit of being billionaire pedophiles, are not like you and me. He was sending out a secret signal to the antisemites at home. He was othering Jeffrey Epstein. And he would not be allowed to get away with it.

This interpretation is, of course, deranged. Still, it was treated seriously. The writer David Baddiel, for instance, announced that “every Jew watching noticed” (although, as a Jew who was indeed watching—Dave, mate, I didn’t notice a thing) – and with celebrities joining the chorus, the incident was written up in a host of major British newspapers. 

I find it hard to believe that Baddiel or any of the others seriously thought Corbyn was sending coded antisemitic messages. But I don’t think he was simply lying either. (After all, if this were pure cynical calculation, why would he start drawing attention to Epstein’s Jewishness?) Something far stranger was at work. This was a bad-faith reading.

Instead of the pointless demand that people stop lying to themselves, what if we became better critics and connoisseurs of lies?

Bad faith is a virulent form of paranoid signification. 

You adopt the ugliest possible interpretation of something, and then you convince yourself that it’s true. In fact, it’s not just true, it’s so shiningly, obviously true that anyone who doesn’t have your particular psychotic read on events is immediately suspect. Don’t believe Corbyn was activating secret Nazi programming implanted in people’s brains? Well, then you’re probably an antisemite yourself. Bad-faith positions are never cautious or provisional. You scream them loud to drown out the doubt inside your own head. And because the other side is screaming too, you have to pump up your agony to match their pitch. The thing spirals faster with every improvement in our communications infrastructure. Everyone is furious and nobody really cares.

Another example: Earlier this year, Bernie Sanders’ press secretary Briahna Joy Grey responded to the suggestion that coronavirus treatment ought to be free by writing “This is a good start, but is it ok to die from cancer or diabetes because you’re poor?” As it happened, the free-coronavirus-treatment idea came from Senator Kamala Harris, whose mother – along with one in six people in the world, sooner or later – had died of cancer. The mock-fury was immediate and it came from high places. Grey was being cruel, ugly, bullying, disrespectful, vile, vicious, scum, fire-her-at-once. But again, there was something strange about this outrage. For one, nobody could actually point out what was so wrong about what she’d said.

As online abuse goes, “your mother should have had free healthcare” is pretty mild stuff. What rule, exactly, did Grey break? Are you not allowed to even mention cancer to someone who lost a parent to the disease? Again, one in six deaths are from cancer; that’s a serious taboo. (In fact, just to be safe, shouldn’t we avoid talking about death at all? Let the bodies pile up where they fall, and politely step past them.) But there’s no such rule, and absolutely nobody was actually offended by what Grey said. To be truly offended should be something very serious. You feel it in your lungs and your skin. The sight of a corpse. A kick in the teeth. Suffering and shame. But hundreds of people behaved as if something terrible had happened, and in a sense, they must have believed it.

There’s more of this stuff, it piles up every day. I could, for instance, scream endlessly about the people who pretend to not understand the concept of a joke. But I’m not trying to suggest that bad faith is only something our enemies do, that it’s a weapon used by reactionaries against the left. These are just the examples I feel most comfortable remembering.

I’ve been on the pointy end of some spectacularly brazen bad-faith readings in my time – but I’ve also dished them out. A few years beforehand, I’d been involved in a public Oedipal struggle with Slavoj Žižek, the philosopher (and large woodland creature), over migration and refugees. I still stand by a lot of what I said, but some of my approach relied on a very forensic and very deliberate misreading of Žižek’s arguments in order to subtly suggest that he was a racist. Going into his language with a scalpel and tweezers; twisting here, straightening out there, until the thing takes on a different shape. I didn’t think of what I was doing as dishonest. The material was there, and I was clever at adapting it. Clever enough to convince myself that since I was arguing with A Racist, any strategy was justified.

At this point in this sort of essay, writers usually shift into a moralistic gear. Arguing in bad faith is bad; it cheapens public debate, it makes it harder to talk about the real issues, and what’s worse, it grubbies your soul. It makes you a coward and a conformist. We should all stop doing it. This is a very virtuous and reasonable line, and it achieves absolutely nothing. Nobody ever listens.

I’m not sure we could stop speaking in bad faith, even if we wanted to. In fact, I’m not sure it would even be a good idea to try.

When you accuse someone of speaking in bad faith, what you usually mean is that they’re in dissonance with themselves, professing something they don’t really believe. The solution is for them to become more honest, more truthful, more authentic. They are split; they should heal themselves. But the possibility of bad faith makes this all very difficult. Clearly, we’re capable of believing multiple contradictory things at once. What if that contradiction is what we actually, authentically are?

For Sartre – who gave us the philosophical understanding of bad faith – it’s precisely when you try to slough off all your contradictory impulses that you’re most in danger. His famous example is a café waiter, ‘quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid.’ This man is in bad faith: he’s pretending to be a waiter even as he actually is one, suppressing everything in himself that is not a waiter. “A grocer who dreams is offensive to the customer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer.” But later in the same chapter of Being and Nothingness, Sartre imagines two men, a homosexual who refuses to accept his sexuality, whose ‘case is always different, peculiar,’ just a series of mistakes and temptations – and his friend, who wants him to just be honest with himself, to simply come out and say: I am gay. “Who,” asks Sartre, “is in bad faith? The homosexual or the champion of sincerity?”

The answer is both of them.

The homosexual is lying to himself, but the champion of sincerity just wants to give him a new and more rigid lie. He wants his friend to constitute himself as a gay man – which is to say, an object, a thing. At the very least, the homosexual has recognised ‘the peculiar, irreducible character of human reality,’ our ability to be and think multiple contradictory things at once. The champion of sincerity wants to blot that out in his friend – and because he’s a fair and honest guy, he has to do the same thing with himself. ‘The essential structure of sincerity,’ Sartre concludes, ‘does not differ from that of bad faith.’

The present-day demand for sincerity works the same way. It’s dripping with falsehood. Does this fit my personal brand? Is this the kind of idea that a good, progressive (or good, patriotic, or whatever) person like me should accept? Does this embody my blackness, or queerness, or Jewishness, or whichever other abstraction I’ve identified with? Am I expressing the right quotient of outrage for the horrors of the world? Am I staying in my lane? Am I staying true to my authentic self?

Sincerity will not save you. Avoid sincerity like the plague.

For Sartre, bad faith can be overcome; you just need to embrace the freedom you’ve always had. (This is probably where we part ways. We are not free and have never been free. How is the waiter supposed to embrace his freedom while also keeping his job?) But psychoanalysis is more pessimistic. 

Freud and his followers don’t tend to use the term “bad faith,” but the structure is everywhere. It’s there in the theory of ambivalence, as set out in Freud’s cheerfully-titled On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love. The slight tang of hatred that always comes with desire isn’t a pollutant, something you need to flush out before you can have a nice sincere relationship with the other: it’s the fundamental ‘incapacity of the sexual instinct to yield satisfaction.’ Get rid of that frustration, and desire would satisfy itself and wither; hatred is the only thing that keeps love alive. It’s there in fetishism. Octave Mannoni describes the formula of disavowal: je sais bien, mais quand même; I know very well, but at the same time… The infant simultaneously knows that his mother does not have a penis, and continues to believe that she does. Our first, primordial thoughts are already doubled and contradictory.

More than anything, it’s in language itself. In a short essay, The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words, Freud notes that in the ancient Egyptian language, every word simultaneously means its opposite — “ken,” for instance, meaning both “strong” and “weak.” The same happens in dreams, which are after all a kind of idiosyncratic language; they “show a particular preference for combining contraries into a unity or for representing them as one and same thing.” A kind of bad faith is baked into the structure of consciousness and communication. (The psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva emphasizes this point – she sees language as our “ultimate and inseparable fetish,” and finds the structure of disavowal in the act of signification itself: “The sign is not the thing, but just the same.”) In other words, “speaking in bad faith” is just a long-winded way of saying “speaking.”

Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say that there’s absolutely no difference between ordinary language and the kind of bad-faith bullshit I described above. Something is happening; something dormant in language is being heightened and drawn out. This isn’t an unfamiliar process. Sometimes, we call it poetry.

What would happen if, instead of seeing bad faith as a moral or logical problem, we started approaching it as a form – or even the highest form – of art?

Broadly, there are two grand approaches to the theory of art. In one, art is a mirror held up to nature: it reveals reality to us in new ways and through other eyes; it’s how the world comes to know itself. In the other, art is basically just a type of lying.

The ancient Greeks tended to hold the second view. Their language didn’t have a word for fiction, as distinct from falsehood; this might be why statesmen and philosophers were so uneasy about the institution of the theatre, which made people respond to play-acted events as if they were real, and why Plato was so keen to kick all the poets out of his ideal society. Art is trickery, and Plato – history’s great champion of sincerity – wanted a social order founded on truth. 

Pliny tells a nice story about a contest in the 5th century BCE between two Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Parrhasius painted a bowl of grapes, and his depiction was so realistic that a flock of birds lighted near the painting and tried to eat it. Zeuxis, meanwhile, had hidden his own effort behind a shabby curtain. Flush with pride, Parrhasius demanded that his rival reveal his effort: stop hiding it behind that curtain, let’s see what you’ve got. The curtain was the painting. 

Parrhasius admitted defeat: he had managed to deceive the birds, but Zeuxis had managed to deceive him. But by those standards, Zeuxis would have been an even greater artist if he’d managed to trick not Parrhasius, but himself.

Reading and arguing in bad faith is, in its own way, a deeply creative activity. Nabokov, in Pale Fire, turns deranged misreading into a deeply unsettling form of literary production – but the same thing happens every time someone decides to read something without charity. To make it work, you have to be deft. You need enough imagination to create unreal worlds. You need a keen eye and a poet’s ear; you need a talent for drawing out what’s hidden in ordinary words. An ordinary artist uses their hands to rearrange the mute material of the world into something meaningful. As a bad-faith artist, your job is much harder; you have to create meaning while both your material and your hands actively resist you at every step.

Most people are bad at it, flat-footed and obvious, but most people who try to paint or write poetry start out bad at that too. It’s a craft; it can be taught. The nightmare of the present is an intellectual landscape populated by amateur sophists. People who aren’t just dishonest (which can be forgiven), but cack-handed and boring (which can not). This might be why so much actual bad-faith argument hits the same tired emotional notes: prim outrage and denunciation. It’s easy to whip yourself up into a fake fury. But other affects are available. Adorno, for instance, considers the possibility of happiness in bad faith. Happiness is a function of memory; it’s always in a gold-tinted past. “No one who is happy can know that he is so. He who says he is happy lies, and in invoking happiness, sins against it.” Could we build beautiful falsehoods out of hollow joy? What could a bad-faith reading look like if it conjured up a sense of vast, soft, rolling sadness?

Thinking of bad faith as art doesn’t just give us the opportunity to improve our skills. It also raises a challenge. Instead of the pointless demand that people stop lying to themselves, what if we aspired to be better critics and connoisseurs of lies? We need to learn how to appreciate bad faith without being held hostage to it. You don’t need to take seriously the idea that free healthcare is rude to cancer patients, or that Jeffrey Epstein was being racially abused by his own name. You don’t even need to get worked up by the sheer dishonesty of it all. You can just say, without a mote of sincerity: brilliant work, Mr. Baddiel, Ms. Reid, Mr. Kriss, a very clever self-deception, well done. And leave it at that.

That’s the plan, at least. I like this argument. It makes a certain amount of sense to me; maybe to you as well. But do I actually believe it? I don’t know. It’s so hard to tell.