A Word for the Necessity of Trust

Mauvaise Foi (mō-vez-fwä) • phrase

Definition: Bad Faith

Origin: French

In Being and Nothingness, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the world to a new understanding of mauvaise foi or “bad faith.”

Most of us are aware of bad faith in the conventional sense. If you interact with another person and they lie or deceive you, then that person is engaging in bad faith and we are encouraged to not interact with them. The phrase “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” speaks to this expectation.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre proposed a new iteration of mauvaise foi where the lie or deception consists of what one tells oneself instead of what they tell another person. If a person believes a lie to be the truth, then their actions will be a continuation of the lie even if the person believes themselves to be truthful. Under Sartre, his existential interpretation of mauvaise foi reminds us that we all have a personal obligation to speak and exude truth and that lying to ourselves is the same as lying to other people. Mauvaise foi is not about just avoiding liars, but being self-aware so that we do not live a life full of lies.

Mauvaise foi and Ethnocide

Ethnocide is fueled by mauvaise foi because deception is necessary for this type of inequitable exchange. No one would interact with a perpetrator of ethnocide if their intent was clearly known. If you knew that someone aspired to destroy or profit off your culture, you would never engage with them or welcome them into your life. Therefore, ethnocide always begins with a lie.

Additionally, the perpetrators of ethnocide are also lying to themselves. They do not want to believe that their way of life consists of destroying the culture of another. In America especially, we’d much rather believe that our success and achievements are the results of our individual hard work and sacrifice. Believing otherwise would mean that our existence in this ethnocidal society is made possible by perpetuating lies and cultural harms onto others. This may be a hard pill to swallow and can be demoralizing to anyone, so many pick the path of avoiding these emotions and reinforcing their lies as the truth. For hundreds of years, people and entire nations decided to believe that there was a superior race, and this became one of those “truths” that colonizers used to justify their numerous atrocities around the world. The United States and its ethnocidal foundations are built upon both iterations of mauvaise foi and bad faith is still very prominent to this day.

Last week, the Republicans in the Senate decided to rush through the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, which is an example of America’s systemic bad faith. In 2016, they prevented Merrick Garland’s nomination based on the dubious reason that we were in an election year, but in 2020, they have no problem tossing that logic to the side. We describe them as hypocrites, and that is true, but mauvaise foi would be a better choice of words to pinpoint what they’re exactly doing. There are some senators such as Mitch McConnell, who will say whatever is necessary to get what they want and keep power. McConnell has no hesitation to lie if it serves his interests, so he is certainly the conventional understanding of bad faith. However, there are plenty of Republicans who seem less craven and more concerned with conservative principles, but their end decisions are the same. They end up agreeing with McConnell regarding Garland, Barrett, and other issues. These Republicans may not be intentional liars, but they do believe the lie that America will fall apart without conservatives leading the way. Therefore, as they attempt to be honest and principled, they merely manifest the same lies as McConnell but with a façade that makes the public believe they are reasonable people. These people practice existential mauvaise foi.

If a political party either knowingly or unknowingly exists via trafficking lies, deception, and mauvaise foi, it will only embolden the crème de la crème of liars and misinformation to rise to the top of American politics and society.

Destroying Trust in America

In America, it is normal for people to express a lack of trust in various institutions, especially the government. America’s crisis of trust stems from the intersection of ethnocide and mauvaise foi because the perpetrators of ethnocide create bad faith relationships with anyone who is not a part of their group. Colonizers and the founders of America created relationships devoid of trust with indigenous and African people because they decided to build their society upon the extraction of the culture and resources from these non-white people. America has relationships built upon lies and betrayal and then expects the American people to trust these very institutions that were created through this dishonesty.

Segments of white America celebrate these lies because this mauvaise foi, both traditional and existential, sustains their almost exclusively white way of life. Yet, the lies they tell and the lies they believe to be true only result in them distrusting the world around them even more. Ironically, they tend to not trust the government that white America has created because it is filled with deception. They do not want to pay their taxes because they do not trust that the government will use their money wisely. They do not believe that COVID-19 is real and they’re skeptical that the government is just trying to profit off of their vaccine purchases. Many of these distrustful Americans even put their trust in an American who claims to also distrust the government and pays “millions of dollars” in taxes. They believed in his lies with the hope that it would benefit them. What they have yet to understand is that you cannot create a good-faith relationship out of mutual bad faith ones.

It is easy for America to project a narrative of stability, prosperity, and good faith when the plight of the ethnocidee forms almost no part of our collective narrative. This reliance on an exclusionary narrative that tilts in favor of the perpetrators of ethnocide is also mauvaise foi

Just the other day, a friend of mine was consumed with anxiety and angest as the legitimacy of American democracy crumbled before his eyes, and he was surprised that I did not have the same emotional response. I told him how as a Black man, America’s democracy was never legitimate for my people, and how my culture has worked to make this illegitimate government legitimate so that it can stop oppressing us. My friend agreed with my assessment, but his previous understanding of America was one that excluded this narrative. America gleefully feeds us this mauvaise foi which impairs our ability to do good in the world. We should all be concerned as the corrupt foundations of our system spreads to harm more and more Americans, but if our present turmoil prompts an existential crisis, it is because we are subscribing to a mauvaise foi understanding of this country.

America might have noble ideals and principles, but if you elevate untrustworthy people to the pinnacles of power, then their mauvaise foi will destroy the integrity of everything we hope to hold dear. Our collective trust in America crumbles as we become more aware of our society’s dependence on ethnocide and mauvaise foi. Therefore, we must liberate ourselves from this tragic norm by forming good faith, or bonne foi, relationships. We can do this by elevating the oppressed and communities of color and focusing on creating good faith exchanges that can empower more people to build a more honest, trustworthy, and dignified society.


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