Ye of 'Bad Faith'

From Sartre to Seder, how the legal—and philosophical—term became a metaphor for the death of truth

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On Monday, The Wrap reported that MSNBC had decided not to renew its contract with Sam Seder, the actor, director, and comedian who has also been a longstanding contributor to the network. The reason for the decision, per the report, was a tweet Seder had posted in 2009 and since deleted: “Don’t care re Polanski, but I hope if my daughter is ever raped it is by an older truly talented man w/a great sense of mise en scene.” It was a joke, Seder said, that he had made at the expense of those who had made excuses for Roman Polanski, the director who, in 1977—when he was 43—pled guilty to sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. (Polanski has since been accused of assault by three more women, who say he sexually victimized them when they were teenagers.)

The tie-severing seems to have come—MSNBC has yet to comment publicly on the matter—in reaction to a Medium post, published in November by the alt-right activist Mike Cernovich and titled “MSNBC Contributor Sam Seder Endorses Polanki’s [sic] Sex Crimes in Now Deleted Tweet.” Cernovich had plumbed the archive to find that tweet; he acknowledged in writing about it that “some are saying Seder was making a joke or being sarcastic.” Still, Seder lost his job. As he put it in a recent episode of his podcast, The Majority Report, speculating that Cernovich had led a campaign against him to silence his criticisms of President Trump and the U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, “This smear involves the willful misinterpretation of a tweet that I posted in 2009.” The clip was titled “BREAKING: I’m Under Attack by the Nazi Alt-Right.”

Seder’s firing was met by many valid charges—against Cernovich, and also against MSNBC—of “bad faith.” Both figuratively (The A.V. Club: “MSNBC has now fully bought into that smear campaign … whose openly stated goal is the destruction of news outlets just like it through the use of blatantly manipulative trolling techniques”) and literally: “The entire culture and our politics are now dominated by people who have weaponized bad faith and shamelessness,” the MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted. (Hayes added: “Also, I reiterate my longstanding position that people shouldn’t be fired for a tweet, *particularly* one that is obviously being read in manifestly bad faith.”)

Bad Faith. Bad faith. Bad faith. Not just in regard to Seder’s story, but also, recently, in regard to the removal of Peter Strzok, who led the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. And to Twitter, in the BuzzFeed writer Katie Notopoulos’s account of being locked out of the service for days as the company capitulated to trolls. And to Twitter’s more general failures to write and enforce meaningful rules against such trolling. And to the recent—and spectacularly failed—attempt by Project Veritas, James O’Keefe’s stunt-sting operation, to induce The Washington Post to report on a false story about Roy Moore. “Maliciously bad faith,” Martin Baron, the Post’s executive editor, termed it. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf summed it up, “There is perhaps no better illustration of the bad faith that prevails today on the populist right than the actions of O’Keefe as he solicits donations for Project Veritas.”

Bad faith is a term with legal valences: Contracts, in particular, demand bona fides for their execution, and can be terminated when bad faith is revealed on either side. As it’s used among the American media, though, the term generally implies a contract of a different sort: the kind that evokes notions of citizenship and civility and—the old idea remains with us, despite all the buffeting it has taken of late—honor. While good faith is a stand-in for trustworthiness, which is also to say for norms that are both commonly understood and commonly shared, bad faith suggests the opposite: the erosion of commonality itself. It suggests a flaw that affects—infects—all of us by social association. Not just intellectual dishonesty, not just hypocrisy, but something even more pernicious: Bad faith is cutting because it suggests a foundational kind of failing. Without faith in the individual sense, after all, what faith can we have in the collective?

In that sense, bad faith, in Seder’s story—and Strzok’s, and Notopoulos’s, and the Washington Post’s—works as a revealing shorthand: not just for the weaponization of lies, but also for the expansive effects of the war itself. It suggests how easily, as truth loses its moorings, the world can be manipulated: jobs lost, compromises made, the language of contract law suggesting the breaching of the American social contract. Bad faith in the most immediate way suggests both-sides-ism at its most insidious—MSNBC fired Seder, it seems painfully clear, out of a capitulation to Cernovich and the alt-right, assigning equal weight to their views and to Seder’s—but it also suggests a broader struggle for truth and authority. “I agree with this fully. Main Stream Media has done exactly that for decades but the people have finally caught on and aren’t buying the BS anymore.” That was Donald Trump Jr., quoting a tweet from Chris Hayes and, in an attempt at a rope-a-dope, accusing the “Main Stream Media” of being, collectively, the bearer of bad faith.

So bad faith is both conveniently expansive and conveniently specific. And while it has long been with us, as a term and a practice—“Bad Faith on Ecology Laid to Reagan,” a New York Times article had it in 1982—the phrase has enjoyed a particular kind of popularity of late, as Americans become gradually desensitized to angry accusations of dishonesty, of falseness, of lies. (Do you remember Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who yelled “You lie!” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress in 2009? Do you remember him, though he remains in office, for much beyond the rank cynicism of the live-televised accusation?) Bad faith, on the other hand, remains striking as an accusation: For all its ubiquity, it’s a gut punch. It’s a character attack. It’s ad hominem. Bad faith is not concerned with individual claims of truth, or with individual lies, so much as it alleges someone’s dishonesty as an overarching condition. It suggests a system of deception rather than a single instance of it.

Because of that, bad faith is also well suited to the party-oriented politics of the moment: Its contract-law dimensions suggest two sides in tension with each other. Good faith here, bad faith there. This tribe here, that tribe there. (The first recorded use of bad faith in English, Henry Cogan’s 1653 translation of The Voyages and Adventures of Fernand Mendez Pinto, hints precisely at that tribalism: “Now because it seemed strange unto them, that we had voluntarily submitted our selves in that sort to the bad faith of the Chineses … they asked of us from what Country we came.”)

The term’s intimations of alliances also make it apt as a metaphor for conflict, for unrest, for war. Winston Churchill, for his part, rightly saw how easily, and all too literally, bad faith could be weapon: In a 1912 letter to his cousin while he served as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill wrote, “But the European situation is far from safe, & anything might happen. It only needs a little ill will or bad faith on the part of a great power to precipitate a far greater conflict.” Decades later, his philosophy deeply informed by the “greater conflict” Churchill anticipated, Jean-Paul Sartre accused Charles Baudelaire, as one paper put it, of being “a man of bad faith hiding the fact of his lack of courage behind the fiction of his unhappy destiny.”

Bad faith, indeed—mauvaise foiis a concept Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir with him, relied on in their attempts to explain humanity to itself. For the existentialists, mauvaise foi is the falseness of inauthenticity: the person capitulating to social pressures and cultural norms. (Or, as Urban Dictionary better explains it, “you’re frontin’.”) Bad faith in that sense is the loss of freedom that comes from the individual ceding power to the collective. It’s the crushing gravity of conformity. It’s the social world exerting itself over the individual soul. But that sense of bad faith, in the America of 2017, with all its talk of fake news and information silos and post-truth, can read as tragically quaint. You can’t give in to the pressures of the community, after all, if there’s no real community to begin with.