Sartre, Kavanaugh and the Politics of “Bad Faith” – The Forward
Bad faith is very present in the news. As the media relentlessly reminds us, Republicans tirelessly accuse Democrats of bad faith, while Democrats relentlessly criticize Republicans for the same sin. But Jean-Paul Sartre, the thinker who immortalized the sentence, would say that what he called “Bad faith” is not only entirely different, but it is also a condition that Republicans and Democrats, pro and anti-Kavanaugh camps now seem to be suffering from.
The expression appeared seventy-five years ago when, in 1943, the prestigious Gallimard publishing house published Sartre’s magnum philosophical opus, “Being and Nothingness”. At over 700 pages, the book literally weighed a kilogram and figuratively fell from the printing press to the floor with a thud. In the Paris occupied by the Nazis, most of the inhabitants already found that their daily life was a consuming activity, because they mainly found nothing in the grocery stores. It was only after the liberation of France that his book began to attract readers when, along with Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre was propelled onto the world stage as a representative of a new philosophy called existentialism. .
In the book, Sartre defines bad faith as our refusal to admit, whether to others or to ourselves, the meaning of our actions, even (or especially) as we carry them out. For example, while I might commit a succession of wildly partisan acts, I don’t see what strikes others as a meaningful role model. This blindness results from my reflex to see each of these acts individually, and my ability to invoke mitigating factors for each of them. And so, I can tell myself and others that I am the most objective of actors, someone quite capable of displaying the right temper when necessary.
More importantly, bad faith blinds us to the crude fact of our radical freedom: we are free to choose what we are. In his famous and controversial essay “The Antisemite and the Jew,” published shortly after the war, Sartre applied the notion of bad faith – which he now called “inauthenticity” – to the nature of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semite (and to a lesser extent what Sartre calls the “inauthentic Jew”) denies this existential reality, insisting instead on the fact that he has a fixed essence just like his entirely invented Jew. In short, anti-Semitism is “fear of the human condition”.
This also applies in a less dramatic way. Take Sartre’s famous vignette of the waiter – perhaps the one serving him as he revised that same chapter at the crowded Café de Flore – which impeccably and repeatedly recreates the gestures and words one expects from ‘a waiter. As Sartre remarks: “You don’t have to look at it for very long before you understand. He is playing the waiter.
Indeed, the server as a server is so convincing that it comes to think of itself as a server. He thus blinds himself to the existential fact that he is totally free to choose a different role. This disease, mind you, is not confined to the profession of waiter. Take my own job. Yesterday I gave some lessons at my university. Winding and meandering between the desks and the blackboard, I see myself as a teacher. In fact, I have considered myself a teacher for almost thirty years. This longtime performance became the person, and although reviews have varied over the years, my belief that I am a teacher has not changed.
The crucial point, for Sartre, is not that I lie to others about my identity as a teacher. Instead, I keep acting like I’m no more and no less than a teacher. If I were to accept the radical freedom that defines my original state, I must also accept the anguish that accompanies it. Like someone standing on the edge of a cliff, overwhelmed by the dizziness that comes not from realizing that I might fall, but rather that I am free to jump, just like standing in front of my classroom. Dazed to know that I am free to step out of my role as a teacher, I shy away from that prospect while wrapping myself even more firmly in my jargon and job definition.
No matter how fast I run away, however, the shadow of bad faith easily keeps pace. Just yesterday, a student reminded me after class that she would be missing two weeks because she was going to Germany for Oktoberfest. When she first told me this at the start of the semester, I absently thanked her for the warning. But now, thinking what a stupid reason this was to skip four classes, I walked into the great professors’ dungeon. I told the student that I would not renounce my initial consent, but that I found her excuse largely inexcusable. With that, the deflated and defeated student turned and left the room.
Watching her go, I felt uncomfortable with myself. Did I need to be so brief with her, especially since I had already given her my permission? Whatever my reason, I acted in bad faith – not because, as the late philosopher Robert Solomon pointed out, I lied to myself, but rather because I was unwilling to do anything. either about it. I could have called the student back and found a different, nicer way to express my disappointment, but I didn’t. Faced with the question “What should I do now”, I did not take the plunge, but rather fell back into the rationalization that what was done was done. Quite simply, I refused to address the overarching questions of what I could have done and who I really am.
It is at this point that we as a nation end up with the Kavanaugh affair. In the case of Christine Blasey Ford, Sartre’s existentialist companion, Simone de Beauvoir, might suggest that she had spent the past 35 years in bad faith. She had spent most of her adult life, following the sexual assault she had suffered, refusing to face what she might have done or said at the time. Instead, she naturally shied away from this moment, seeking to redefine herself through her roles as mother, wife and seeker. But a moment seemed to have come a few years ago when Dr Ford, refusing to flee any further, instead assumed his freedom – with all the anxiety that pains his soul – and confronted his past and spoke out. of his experience. On Thursday we saw the inspiring heroism that this effort required.
As for the other actors in this drama, they still run away for the most part and in vain. While Democrats stand up for a good cause, more than one do so as Democrats, not as individuals who give respect and dignity to all of their fellow citizens, women and men. As for Republicans, it’s not so much that they’re lying to each other about their motives or goals, although many of them may well be. Instead, they limited their engagement to a narrow range of choices – quite palpably in their refusal to call for an FBI investigation – and therefore refused to recognize their freedom to act on the choices they made. saw fit not to include. They resemble, in fact, Sartre’s anti-Semites.
When Sartre wrote “Being and Nothingness” he saw a number of fellow intellectuals who collaborated or, more frequently, came to terms with the authoritarian French regime and its Nazi masters. They found various reasons for doing what they did, telling themselves that they really had no choice in the matter. That this kind of bad faith afflicts even Sartre, who continues to publish under the aegis of Vichy and the Nazi censors, must remind us that we all suffer, to varying degrees, from this affliction. As we follow events in Washington, it is too much to hope that political actors will be caught red-handed in bad faith. Still, we can at least keep an eye on ourselves.
Rob Zaretsky teaches at Honors College, University of Houston. Her new book, “Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher and the Destiny of the Enlightenment” will be published this winter by Harvard University Press.