Lose The Debate

Getting tactical. A taxonomy of bad faith, Part 1 - on the fascist refusal to occupy a shared reality.

Lose The Debate
Fascist politician Elise Stefanik (left), who is regularly invited on TV to debate fascist positions in the affirmative (as pictured)

Last week I talked about how supremacists like Chris Rufo take whatever positions and postures they find useful to push their eliminationist agenda, relying on an instinct within our society (and especially within our institutions) to find common ground with supremacy. This supremacist instinct allows supremacists to falsely point toward some finer principle or standard or virtue that they don’t believe in themselves in order to advance their eliminationist ends, and also to degrade, discredit, and destroy those principals and standards and virtues, by putting them to supremacists use.

Promoting ideas and actions in the name of some fine thing that you don’t believe in and might actually oppose is what is meant when somebody says bad faith, by the way. You’re posing as one thing—something respectable, something well-meaning—in order to do something ill-intentioned.

For example, say your name was Elise Stefanik, and you were for example a United States Congresswoman. Say also you belong to a political party whose leader is an open fascist, a man who approvingly quotes Hitler in order to promote a conspiracy theory called ‘replacement’ that is part of the undergirding bedrock of antisemitism, and in order to enact the sorts of things you want to enact—like eliminationist brutality against brown people at your border—you find it useful to demolish and discredit things like awareness and knowledge and learning, which means that you and your party participate in a decades-long deliberate coordinated effort to demolish and discredit the university system specifically and the educational system generally and the very idea of knowable truth as a concept. If that were the case, you might work to promote your eliminationist ends by attempting to redefine “antisemitism” to mean “opposition to eliminationism,” and then you might try to define people who protest eliminationist practices as antisemitic.

This would allow you to pretend to be against antisemitism in theory while belonging to a political organization that is doing everything it can to promote antisemitic hatred and violence in actual life. That would be bad faith.

Then you could summon university presidents to Congress in order to portray them as antisemitic for adopting the exact sorts of far-right coddling practices you have spent decades insisting they adopt¹—not to combat antisemitism, but to further your party’s decades-long efforts to demolish and discredit universities specifically and education generally and the very idea of knowable truth as a concept. That would be bad faith, too.

And then a few weeks later you can take to the airwaves to defend your leader’s quotations of Hitler, by positioning the existence of migrants as a poison in the blood, which would not be bad faith because it for once actually aligns with your actual supremacists beliefs and eliminationist intent, but you will not be shunned or chased away by decent people, because you have spent the preceding weeks pretending to be something you are not, and everyone will have spent those weeks finding common ground, not with what you are, but with what you have pretended to be.

And that’s why bad faith posturing—denial, accusation, reversal of victim and offender—is so effective for any type of narcissistic abuser, but most definitely most effective for fascists and other types of supremacists with eliminationist intentions toward their fellow human beings.

In the essay last week, I concluded that this means we ought never to give people with eliminationist intent the benefit of doubt as to their good intentions, because as long as we keep doing this, eliminating other humans will be something we debate, and that is a topic that can never be engaged in good faith.

So I’d say it’s pretty important to be able to recognize bad faith in our debates. That’s what I’d like to do today. Most of the time I’m pretty abstract. Today I’d like to get tactical and specific.

But first: what exactly is a debate for?

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A popular notion regarding debate is that it is the tool needed to create the healthiest society and the most open discourse, which it accomplishes by hashing out competing ideas and arriving, invariably, at the best one.

I have a different view.

I think debate can help people arrive at the best ideas and solutions, but I don’t think debate creates a healthy society. I think it is only if you already have a healthy society that is already committed to finding solutions to problems that those people will ever use debate to find good ideas and solutions. In the same way, only somebody who is committed to gardening will use a trowel to garden. A murderer will find other uses.

See the difference?

Here’s what I think debate is: a sharpening tool that creates a normalizing context. It will sharpen any argument, regardless of merit, and it will sharpen the debating tactics of those who debate, no matter their intent, no matter whether they wish to inspire us to cure cancer, or to murder hundreds or thousands or millions of our fellow lovely human beings.

As a context, debate signals to everyone watching “the debaters are reasonable and knowledgeable people with good intentions, and the propositions being debated are all reasonable outcomes that reasonable people consider reasonable, and which you may feel safe considering also, without being thought of as unreasonable.”

If two people occupy a shared reality based on observable and provable facts, and are both facing a problem that they agree is a problem, and if they both agree the problem should be solved, and if they are both committed to actually solving the problem, and problems are defined as obstacles to the thriving of all humans, then debate can be an excellent tool for working out which solution will best create human thriving This can be true if both debaters don’t know which solution is best and are earnestly seeking it, or if both have strong positions on their preferred position and are trying to win the debate. The shared reality and the shared agreement about finding solutions to the problem, and the shared definition of what problems are—these are what allow a debate to be useful and productive.

If two people occupy a shared reality based on grotesque anti-human lies, and are both facing a problem that they agree is a problem, and if they both agree the problem should be solved, and if they are both committed to actually solving the problem, and the problem is defined as the existence of other types of human beings, then debate will only facilitate a more efficient and more complete genocidal atrocity.

People of bad faith, like fascists and other types of supremacists, know this. It’s why they are so insistent on endless debate over their unacceptable positions. And other people of bad faith who enable them know this, too, which is why they are so eager to grant them that debate.

They insist on having this debate in order to push eliminationist ends. Moreover, they push eliminationists ends from every possible position you can hold within that debate—any of which they can easily take, precisely because people with no beliefs beyond their own supremacy are perfectly comfortable acting in bad faith, and pretending to hold positions that they do not hold in order to achieve their eliminationist ends.

So I’d like to define, in rather broad strokes, the possible positions a bad faith actor with eliminationist intentions might take.

This will be Part 1.

Let’s start with two people, and an idea. Here’s the idea:

Broadly speaking, there are two places we can go from here. Let’s say Person 1 goes upward to “It is, and/or we should,” and Person 2 heads downward, toward it “It isn’t, and/or we shouldn’t.”

This branch is where we determine whether Person 1 and Person 2 are going to exist together in a shared reality or not, and whether that reality is going to be based on observable truth or an eliminationist lie. I don’t want to think how many thousands of words I’ve written on the observable fact that fascism is rising and the moral fact that it must be opposed. The former president (did I mention he’s taken to directly quoting Hitler?) tried to overthrow the government almost exactly 3 years ago, and his attempt to do so comprises some of the ninety-or-so criminal or civil charges he’s facing. He argued in court this week that he, as president, was above any law, and would have the right to murder his political adversaries if re-elected, and tomorrow he is fully expected to win the Iowa Republican caucus in a massive landslide on his easy path toward the Republican nomination for president.

The point I'm making is that I could have picked any of thousands of other proofs from previous decades that speak to the rise of fascism. I just reached out and chose one of the most recent things. So, if Person 2 takes the lower path, and Person 1 the higher, there’s really no debate to have, for they are not inhabiting a shared reality. Person 1 should lose the debate—not in the sense of wins or losses; in the sense of casting it off. In the sense of discarding an inappropriate tool for a more appropriate one.

In order to talk about more appropriate tools, let’s examine the lower road.

Broadly speaking, I see two reasons for somebody to take a path out of our shared reality. Either they are Willful or they are Unaware.

Let’s talk first about a willful choice to abandon our shared reality.

Broadly speaking, I see two main reasons for willfully abandoning our shared reality in favor of fascism: Malice and Complacency.

You’ll find malice pretty easily these days. To give one recent example, the prominent conservative agitator and middle-aged baby Charlie Kirk has decided to abandon the recent Republican fashion for hero-worshipping their manufactured self-flattering version of Martin Luther King Jr. that never existed in favor of taking the more traditional Republican approach of attacking him for being a rabble-rousing Marxist. It’s an anodyne example compared to all the deliberate theft and harm and death that conservatives are enacting against women and LGBTQ people and Jewish people and Black people and Muslim people and sick people and white rural people and so forth that I could have pointed to, but I do think it shows that supremacy is reasonably certain that tomorrow belongs to it and feels pretty comfortable puffing out its chest and crowing the rise of their glorious new dawn. Anyway, deliberate malice is many things, but one thing it isn’t is bad faith. It actually is what it says it is: straight up bigotry. But it’s not worthy of debate. It deserves a disgusted sneer, maybe. No more.

Still, not everybody has chosen to abandon observable reality in a spirit of open malice. Fascism, like every type of supremacy, carries many privileges and benefits for various classes that it deems supreme, and so it happens that many people, who may not want to be seen as openly malicious even to themselves, nevertheless have determined to find some non-malicious reason to support supremacy as long as they can do it without losing any of their reputation. Complacent masses are one of the two groups whose allegiance deliberately malicious people are fighting the most to gain. They know that if they can normalize their hate, they’ll gain complacent support. If their hatred is opposed, then they’ll lose it. People who go with the flow just go with the flow, after all.

Debating fascists doesn’t oppose fascism, by the way—even if you’re debating in opposition. Debating fascists normalizes fascism and sharpens fascist arguments and the skill of fascist debaters. Debating fascism furnishes people who want to find some excuse to support malicious premises with a wide array of excuses from which to choose. Debate lowers the cost of supporting supremacy, and raises the cost of opposing it. And fascists know this full well. This makes debate an inappropriate tool for people of good faith to engage in with fascists.

The tool I’d use in opposition to those who have deliberately chosen to occupy an alternative reality, whether through malice or complacency, is witness. By witness I mean naming a thing for what it is, with no appeal for permission to any authority beyond your own moral clarity and ability to see true things (and if you want a lot more about what I think about witness, click here or here).

An example of witness would be to simply state, I cannot accept your premise, because I can see how it is designed to eliminate people—expel them from society, terrorize them, harm them, rob them, use them badly, and kill them, and I think that this conversation is not only unworthy of me, but unworthy of you, too.

One thing I like about witness is that it also lets you give witness to people’s reaction to your witness. All you will have to do is witness to the reality of eliminationist activity that you see right in front of you. Because they are in favor of these things, they will inevitably expose themselves by trying to debate you in favor of those things. They’ll argue with you, even though what you are presenting isn’t an argument. The more they do so, the more that anyone observing in good faith can see that their defense of malicious premises, while possibly not offered in an openly malicious spirit, is a choice they’re making, whether deliberate or instinctive.

What this means is that you have discovered a very common form of bad faith—the kind that doesn’t even tell itself about itself. It claims to not know what it intends, but it does know, and if you have moral clarity, you can witness to that fact, on behalf of others who are willing to observe true things. It claims to have good reasons to be complacent about the danger, but it’s actually just a more cowardly malice.

I don’t think these are appropriate debates to have. I’d rather lose the debate—not in the sense of wins or losses, but in the sense of casting it off. Debate about whether or not a lie is true? Lose that. Let’s witness to the moral clarity of truth instead.

So that’s the willful decision to not inhabit our shared reality accounted for.

Let’s go next to the lower branch of the tree, a reason to depart a shared reality based on truth other than Willfulness, which would be Unawareness.

Not everyone who has abandoned observable reality does so deliberately.

Confusion is a real thing. Bad faith actors have done their best to flood the zone with shit, drowning truth in a mass of lies. They’ve degraded principles and standards and virtues by claiming to hold them and then representing them badly. They’ve established malicious premises as reasonable by demanding and receiving platforms from which to espouse them, and by seeking and finding debate partners to argue these premises with them. Ignorance is a real thing, too. Bad faith actors have systematically attacked and degraded ways of knowing: journalism, education, libraries, literacy. And beyond confusion and ignorance, there is distraction. This is a tough world to survive in, and supremacists do everything they can to make sure it’s as tough as possible for those they don’t deem to be supreme. For some people the struggle to exist takes everything they’ve got. The cost of staying aware is high, and reality can be painful, so awareness can take serious effort, and can even be a privilege.

So some people are unawarewhether confused or ignorant or distracted. I don’t think it’s right to debate such people—not because people of awareness are morally superior, but because debate as a tool confuses matters by failing to recognize that we are not yet both occupying reality, and treating ignorance as if it is an outcome just as reasonable as awareness. Masses of unaware people represent the second of the two groups whose allegiance deliberately malicious people are fighting over the most, by the way. Fascists know that if they can just get their hatred platformed, people who aren’t really paying attention will automatically assume that hatred is OK, or at least be willing to go along with hate for the reason that hey it’s on TV. But if hatred isn’t platformed, people who aren’t paying attention will never even notice it.

Debate doesn’t deplatform hate, by the way—not even debate in opposition to hate. Debate platforms it. Debate puts unacceptable ideas on the same stage as acceptable ones. Debate lowers the cost of supporting supremacy, and raises the cost of opposing it. For those who will just go along with something foul, it gives them something foul to go along with. And fascists know this full well.

And that makes debate an inappropriate tool for people of good faith to engage in, in front of masses of distracted, unaware, and ignorant people.

The tool I would recommend instead of debate is information, which comes in many forms, from long conversations, or links to articles or books or papers, all the way to saying something like “you know, that isn’t true at all.” Information is useful, because it is what it is, which is true. And you get to see a person’s reaction to being confronted with truth. If they are interested in truth, then they will look deeper, and ask questions, and start to learn. If they aren’t, they won’t, which will suggest that on some level, their ignorance is deliberate. And if they start to argue in order to maintain ignorance … well. Be as patient as you want, but there will come a point when their points in defense of counterfactual reality come too quickly, too easily, use the same arguments and phrases as those heard from deliberately malicious actors, and draw eliminationist conclusions. At some point, you may have to recognize that the unawareness is feigned. Some only play at ignorance, acting with deliberate malice or complacency in order to draw people of good faith into a normalizing and endless debate against an entrenched impenetrable unawareness—a debate that normalizes unawareness for people who truly aren’t aware.

Which means that you’ve found yet another very common form of bad faith—the kind that pretends not to know things it knows. It claims to not know the truth, but it does know, and when exposure to information reveals its opposition to being informed, anyone observing in good faith can understand that an insistence on debating against awareness as a concept represents bad faith. This is a bad faith that pretends unawareness because it claims it is curious and seeking, or simply doesn’t know better, or is confused, but in fact it’s just a slyer version of willfulness.

I don’t think these are appropriate debates to have. I’d rather lose the debate—not in the sense of wins or losses, but in the sense of casting it off. Debating whether or not we can know things that are already known? Lose that. Let’s inform those who are interested in being informed, and witness with the moral clarity of truth to expose those who prove they aren’t, on behalf of those who are observing in good faith.

OK. That’s the bottom road accounted for.

Now, let’s take the top road: people who agree with the fact that fascism is rising, and agree that it should be stopped.

But I’ve gone on long enough. We’ll do that next week.

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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He laughs in full light of your frown.

¹ Which you would have done in the name of free speech, even though you don’t actually believe in free speech and are actually working to punish the free speech of those who are aligned against you and your goals.