Bad Faith in Our House: An Anthropological Take on Contemporary American Society

The daily news cycle of lies, half-truths, and scandal has reinforced the reality that there is much bad faith in our social house.  Like a ravenous flesh-eating virus, bad faith, which has reached epidemic proportions, is irreparably unraveling our social fabric.

As any anthropologist knows, the brick and mortar of any social house is the trust and confidence that people build through their social relations.  These relations gradually build trust in social institutions.  Trusted social institutions, in turn, legitimize, as Max Weber long ago argued, the exercise of power in a society.

In the mid-twentieth central the great philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the notion of bad faith—a process of self-delusion in which a person displaces her or her sense of self with illusion—that which builds an alternative universe on a foundation of big lies.   Put another way, things in our social and political relations have never been what they seem.

What would Jean-Paul Sartre have thought about bad faith in the age of social media?

He might well have been appalled to discover that in the age of social media—our age—the issue of bad faith has thoroughly saturated our social life, creating a social arena that is often vile and uncivil.  Bad faith has also brought systemic dysfunction to our political institutions. In these electronically contoured times, productive conversation has become a rarity.  In these times of fast news that give credence to conspiracy theories, bad faith has destroyed our confidence in the Office of the Presidency, the US Congress, the Department of Justice and even the FBI. It has undermined our assurance in the veracity of facts and our conviction in a scientific integrity which produces “inconvenient” truths

How can we confront bad faith in the age of American celebrity culture?

In this climate of powerlessness, a key feature of bad faith, is there any hope for a better world?

Who are the guardians of our core values?

Who has the wherewithal to treat the virus of bad faith that has infected our social relations and political institutions?

Sometimes we can use anthropological insights to find our way through the turbulence of contemporary social life.  In my research among the Songhay people I had the great fortune of being the apprentice of a great healer, Adamu Jenitongo.  He was a short slight man who lived in a grass hut at the edge of the town of Tillaberi in the Republic of Niger.


Sohanci Adam Jenitongo at a ceremony in Tillaberi, Niger (Photo by Paul Stoller)

What could this man  teach me—us–about living in the world?

He taught me a great deal about the vicissitudes of life.  He impressed upon me the value of slow learning.  When I asked him about the sohanci’s central obligation, he responded without hesitation.

I am the spiritual guardian of this place, he said.  If someone abuses their authority or betrays our core values, the sohanci works to set things straight.

Above and beyond his or her reservoir of knowledge and practice, the sohanci is first and foremost a keen observer of social and political relations.  In the same vein, anthropologists are keen observers of social and political relations.  Like the Songhay sohanci, anthropologists use their slowly developed knowledge in an attempt to make the world a better place.  In these troubled times, it is crucial that we engage in one of anthropology’s core obligations—cultural critique—an informed, sustained, scientifically rigorous assessment of our social and political life.   In plainly written texts, in accessible blogs, in provocative films, and in inspirational media installations cultural critics can point out again and again that:

  1. climate change exists; failure to recognize this fundamental fact condemns our children to climatic hell;
  2. income and social inequality are not socially sustainable; failure to rectify these inequities is a historically proven prescription for social and economic devastation;
  3. more guns will not solve the scourge of gun violence in America;
  4. ignorance is our enemy; hate has no place in society; and
  5. science is our friend; it is a pathway to the future;

This list, of course, is far from exhaustive.  There are many issues that public anthropologists  can productively critique.  There is much more to say about “fixing the truth” –manipulating false images and narratives for economic and/or political gain.  There is much more to say about how fewer and fewer people read books and/or articles.  There is much more to say about the profound ignorance of our public officials.  Indeed, there is much more to say about how ongoing cultural critique is a powerful first step toward presenting an alternative to the poisonous illusions of celebrity culture.

In the end, a sustained, rigorous and accessible cultural critique will go a long way toward sweeping out much of the dangerous bad faith that has settled so deeply into our social house.


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