The Big Idea. There are two types of influences occurring in any disagreement, one on top dealing with the correctness of the propositions: are they right or wrong, true or false? The other is underneath dealing with the character of the opponents: are they trustworthy or shifty, safe or dangerous? While it is rare to change our minds about our cherished beliefs when challenged, we can often change our feelings about our opposing critics, especially when they prove trustworthy under pressure. Thus, we can learn something beautiful for ourselves: trusting hearts can live in peaceful tension with opposing minds. That expansion in awareness, usually involving a turn toward trusting the other’s motives, can make the difference between war and peace, divorce and marriage, or more generally, useful collaboration and harmful dissociation. Toward that end, cautiously presuming good faith (extending trust in the honesty or sincerity of intention) can alchemize difficult conflicts—turning the desires away from warlike elimination of an enemy, toward an honest contest of mutual persuasion. This can influence the desire of adversaries to remain engaged because they care about each other (almost) as much as their cause. Jumping too quickly to the presumption of bad faith (the intent to deceive) has the opposite result.
Introduction. What good is it to engage with people holding what we consider dangerous beliefs about something important to us, especially if they are not likely to be influenced by any conversation?
Good question. Yet what is it that leads any of us to believe that such influence is not possible?
Well, because of how rotten Those People are, right? (say Americans on all sides of every issue). Modern society is currently plagued by frequent bad faith “conversations” about important questions over public health priorities, fair taxation, climate change responses, bioengineering ethics, conflicting scientific and religious truth claims, appropriate gender and marriage forms, sexual ethics, national security strategies, just economic and legal systems, uncontrollable technologies, and many more important issues. In such exchanges, it’s become easy to automatically presume that, since we are honest about wanting to enlighten others who need it, if others resist our entreaties, they must be demented, duped, or devilish, or a combination of these. We subsequently think, “How could any normal, decent human being believe that!? They must be inwardly lying—to themselves—if not outwardly to me. Clearly, they are so stupid or naïve or evil that they cannot or will not admit the truth.”
Acting in bad faith is lying, exaggerating, or hiding the truth, at others’ expense. We learn early to suspect it of strangers, and that is perhaps a good thing. However, we also learn to wink at it in ourselves (noticing the speck in our neighbor’s eye and ignoring the log in our own). If we are seeking the whole truth together, we should therefore probably admit how easily we project onto others the bad faith that tempts us at least as much as it tempts our neighbors.
Imprudent vs. Wise Suspicion. Here is the ultimate problem: without mutual trust, human relationships become insufferably stressful. That’s not what any of us want.
So, knowing how many justifications for bad faith really do exist, we have to be wary, but somehow also consciously choose to presume good faith in others as much as we can as an antidote to our stressful, cynical suspicion, and more, as an opening for the joyful surprise of finding goodness in strangers or rivals.
There’s a balance in this all. Jesus admonished people to be wise as serpents but gentle as lambs. The serpent in us is necessary. It is prudent and potent—ready to strike at rampant devilishness lurking everywhere (including in ourselves). But the lamb in us is also necessary. It is courageous and powerful—ready to embrace rampant good faith which it entices to come out of hiding everywhere.
Self-fulfilling presumptions of bad or good faith can work for or against us—influencing our opponents to mimic our presumptions. If we assume the worst about our neighbors (especially if we assume only the best about ourselves), we are liable to push our neighbors to retreat into a mirror image of self-defense, assuming the best about themselves, and the worst about us.
How does this psychological and spiritual serpent-lamb wisdom help us better negotiate the messy conflicts that trouble us in private and public life? When we are not sure that our opponent is the devil, we can proceed carefully, presuming there is an angel inside there somewhere.
But what if we verify the devil is there—lying with intent to harm?
Then we move away from normal deliberation and attempts at persuasion—with many ways to evade evil or counter aggression, ranging from the peaceful to the violent. Or, you could just laugh. Martin Luther advised: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Likewise, Thomas More observed, “The devil … that proud spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.”
It’s worth asking: when is it healthy for a society to approve shaming ‘the losers’ who (in their view) should be culturally marginalized? Indeed, how long should opponents of legal sanctions that reflect majority values be granted effective legitimate dissent? This is a perennial dicey question of limits to good-faith public discourse.
After all, would it have been healthy for our country if loyalists had been allowed to keep pushing to be yoked under the British Crown after the Revolution (instead of exiled, as they were, with their property appropriated by the revolutionaries)? Or how about if advocates of slavery were allowed to keep striving for social acceptance of their views after many thousands died to end the horrible injustice of slavery? Or if people opposed to female suffrage or women becoming active in the public sphere were still allowed to try to make it difficult for women to do so? Or if people who might advocate for a return to the legal prohibition of inter-racial marriage were allowed to try to make their case in the public square?
Such views seem to have been effectively banished from the public square. Is this not a very good thing? Note that we are not talking about legal censorship here, which would violate the right to free speech. We are, rather, raising the tricky question concerning what is arguably any society’s need, and right: to effectively marginalize and make impotent views which militate against its foundational values, whether those values have been inherited from the past, or have more recently become the norm.
Perhaps the most recent case regards legal same-sex marriage. The law is clear, but so far, the culture is still divided. Yet it’s already become so culturally taboo to express open concern, that many worry whether any dissent will be allowed in the future. On issues which are still contested by large numbers of people and far from having a side that has conclusively “won the day” one way or another (abortion, climate change, homosexuality, socialism vs. capitalism, etc.)—even on these issues there is a strong tendency (on all sides) to assume the very worst about “the other side.”
But we must ask: is this really the best way to assay the values and truth-claims presently being contested? Assuming the worst about those who disagree with us (without real verification of their evil credentials) is not just a personal failing, but has become insidiously normal—a rampant social disease that destroys the trust and goodwill any society requires to thrive.
Why is this a ‘failing’ and a threat to society? Because we humans will not be open to the persuasion of those who assume the worst about us and treat us as if we were deceivers acting in bad faith when we know (or at least believe) in our own hearts that we are sincere and acting in good faith. And likewise, we certainly will not be open to the persuasion of those whom we ourselves suspect to be acting in bad faith. Without a more trusting openness to each other—without the (cautious) presumption of good faith—good-bye honest communication, good-bye honest persuasive argument, and therefore good-bye trustworthy democracy. As David Brooks cautioned recently, “Our system depends on the good will of the players involved. And if that good will isn’t there, then [beware] the spiral of accusation, animosity, and enmity.”
It remains crucial, we would add, that this whole discussion of bad and good faith be read in the context of the legal limits of very offensive public communications that express or elicit disdain, contempt, and disgust. Each society will produce over time coercive legal limitations to public speech that is slanderous, traitorous, or obscene. Those legal limits are themselves appropriate matters for continual persuasive contestation of values. However, any legal attempt to eliminate most public responses of contempt or disgust are doomed to eliminate most difficult public conversations—eventually leading to oppressive, even totalitarian order. Always contested, some degree of utterly disturbing blasphemy must be allowed in a pluralistic society sustained by the dynamics of peaceful tension.
Looking back. Let’s pause to take a useful historical perspective on this perennial problem. In the 17th century, after decades of massive death tolls chastened European countries to find a way to sustain social order without forcing a single religious commitment on warring Protestants and Catholics, three political theories seemed to be plausible, as Harvard historian Teresa Bejan has argued.
Each one presumed the state could not control private beliefs but could regulate public behavior. The first idea established a state religion or ideology and made any public religious contestation (or proselytizing) illegal. The second established no state religion and allowed public religious or ideological contestation for all as long as the public peace was not disturbed. The third limited public religious or ideological contestation to mutually respectful expressions in speech or writing.
Today people still line up in these three camps when faced with unresolvable social conflicts based on contested ideological beliefs, values, and practices. Namely, we debate whether to: 1) just shut up in public and act like citizens all agree on national values, or 2) broadcast and contest your beliefs however you would like, as long as you don’t cause riots, or 3) publicly express your differing beliefs without using words that criticize or offend others.
This isn’t an easy question—not when sensitive and consequential questions are on the line, about which people feel passionately and strongly. So, where do you stand on the matter of public expressions of utter offensiveness (against your beloved tribe—minority or majority), blasphemy (against whatever god or principle or cause you hold most high), or disgust and disregard for any person or value of worth?
We conclude that alternative two offers the best chance for sustaining long-term order in a society of many rivals seeking freedom to promote their most cherished values and beliefs. We believe the first alternative (just be quiet if you’re not on board) disallows real conversations about our deepest values in good faith. It creates silos of tribalism that destroy the possibility of a healthy pluralistic society. And the third alternative (just be nice if you’re not on board) is psychologically phony, disallowing ‘transparent’ sharing of honest feelings—which is not a way to build a healthy, trusting society.
Alternative two—an open society that supports the public cacophony of all sorts of value claims (and truth claims) that are utterly offensive and disgusting to many—is least likely to produce social explosions of the repressed or unchecked bullying of the oppressed. In this scenario, the desire to keep the general peace checks extreme power-playing as all factions have a similar interest for free expression without oppression. (James Madison, in Federalist 10 and 51 makes this argument). The real price of this free expression is tension, which is often extremely painful for disdained and oppressed groups with little social power.
This tumultuous alternative is the most promising way for a pluralistic society to thrive—as long as it continually teaches its citizens by precept and example to cultivate a salubrious mixture of patient thick skin and effective persuasive engagement. In other words, the chance for mutually persuasive public conversations (and actions) that allow people to seek the whole truth together is vital enough for the diverse members of a dynamic, thriving society, that the likely harmful or bothersome trade-offs many endure are worth it—even to those harmed or bothered.
The radical freedom of offensive public expression can produce such ill will that neither ‘common humanity’ nor ‘equal citizenship’ is sufficient to keep people from blows. Something more is required for a culture to digest the resentful and angry feelings produced by deep offensiveness. Roger Williams (1600-1680) wrote that Peace and Truth are cousins that rarely meet unless accompanied by their other cousin, Patience. We teach Patience in practical terms by 1) promoting the assumption of good faith toward our adversaries, and 2) remaining hopefully open to repentance of our proven enemies—the cessation of their bad faith toward us.
Yet very often in history, antagonistic contests over rival values or policies produce adamant, impatient righteous saviors (secular or religious) who call for ending world-damaging conflicts with the utter silencing or elimination of their opponents’ political or religious beliefs and/or policies. As we’ve noted, there are understandable, innate reasons for this impulse to purify the world by eliminating purveyors of evil contagion by death or exile—or by effectively “disappearing” them through shame, or through cultural shifts so pervasive as to leave their noxious views no foothold from which to launch any further attacks upon what the vast majority has come to view as social progress. Sometimes, this really might be right and necessary.
But as we consider this nuclear option, beware: in dynamic social conditions your group could be viewed as the dangerous putrifier next time around. Both legal and illegal coercion produces deep resentment and a latent desire for vengeance when there is an opening. So, as awkward as it sounds, only sincere conversion of hearts and minds via persuasive “missionary work” (from all perspectives) can eliminate adversaries, without setting up cycles of resentful vengeance. Who would have thought that missiology—the study of persuading ‘conversion’ without coercive threats or bribes—would become the salient discipline for the cognizanti of the 21st century?
Continual repentance for oppression. We are writing from our 21st century American points of view, and in good faith, we must acknowledge with blurry awareness our shortcomings along with blinding clarity of our parents’ egregious sins. The founding of the ‘land of the free’ involved more violent coercion of prior inhabitants than we like to remember. This (along with slavery) still confronts the consciences of US citizens with cries for some kind of repentance. Without excusing our human blindness, it is a fact that no growth comes without some destruction of the prior. Seeing this, repentance is needed all the way back and everywhere, though clearly, for the American context, some national sins (slavery, colonization, imperialism) are more relevant than others. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but also the bones of victims.
Manifest destiny, the idea that Providence willed the European hegemonic domination of the Americas—the Protestant domination of North America especially—allowed the coercive settlement America to feel justified for a while. But settler-colonists did not convert most of the hearts and minds of the indigenous tribes. As is always the case, this resulted in a humiliating resentment and repressed desire for vengeful justice on one side—and on the other, repressed cultural guilt that ‘haunted’ the would-be-great victorious society whose grand narrative was most often too impotent to make converts of the locals on its own merits.
In seeking the whole truth together, the responsibility to repent and make restitution—where possible—becomes obvious. Then actually doing it proves good faith in our group and personal characters. Jesus was a wise psychologist when He told His listeners to face and cure their human offenses before making sacred offerings to their God. This works well in politics too. Engaging others in good faith requires responsible introspection before honest interaction. Confession is not just good for the soul; it disarms our adversaries with a strangely admirable and potent mixture of confidence and humility.
The absence of it can also exert a burden on us all. As Rene Girard theorized, throughout human history, the violence of the past weighs too heavily on its more innocent beneficiaries so current injustice must somehow be seen as just—a sign of Karmic Fate or Divine Will. In this essay series, in contrast, we are raising up the value of seeking the whole truth together by listening to the muffled voices of others with the new hearing aid we prescribe: heart and mind conversation. This practice also becomes a kind of sacred act compatible with almost all traditions: healing the wounds of the past to live with the freedom to create a better future: truth and reconciliation and repentance.
We are not essaying to end these conflicts over religious truth and cultural power, but to provide a better way to overtly acknowledge and patiently engage them in good faith, as persuasion contests that aim for conversion and eschew coercion. To do this in good faith requires “missionaries” (persuaders) of all stripes to meet each other in mutually influential conversations aimed at seeking the whole truth together. To be effective, these missionaries must be doubly open—first, by fully disclosing their several motives and experiences that prompt them to persuade others to adopt allegiance to their “good news,” and second, by carefully listening and seeking the other’s influence in a mutual search for the whole truth that they do not yet grasp.
We hope in all this to provide a way of softening the inevitable offense we all feel from coming right out and telling each other we are wrong about what matters most. Without evading the sting of engaging in such disagreements, there is an attitude that keeps the swelling down and relieves the pain enough to keep going—to stay in the conversation, to sustain a democracy, a company, a family, a marriage. It is a trusting attitude of good faith backed with protection in the case of bad faith. Trust and verify is the practical way to continually negotiate and sustain an adequately peaceful order out of wide disagreements in values and heated conflicts of interests that deeply trouble people.
Presuming bad faith makes improvement unlikely. To reiterate, in bad faith encounters, no matter how polite or respectful participants may be with communication techniques, effective conversation is impossible. We see this constantly now in public media and even personal arguments as people talk over each other competing for air time with little or no desire for mutual influence.
Too often opponents perform in bad faith for audiences that listen in bad faith as they accomplish the unspoken task of shoring up tribal support, but only pretending to engage in problem-solving. The American presidential candidates’ ‘debates’ in 2020 belonged on Saturday Night Live. How long will we continue to find this stuff entertaining?! When will an honest child at last shout loud enough, ‘Why is the Emperor naked?’
Yet it is a fact that lying to self or others can achieve results the liar desires. The unspoken, demeaning, accusatory presumptions of bad faith often function to advance a position by shutting out the influence of rival views. Laughing derisively without responding directly is a well-worn tactic of rhetorical aggression. Other effective tactics include name-calling, labeling the positions of an opponent as dangerous, impious, crazy, anti-scientific, or “uncivil” (see “Tyranny of Civility”), and, of course, never seriously responding at all.
To be clear, good faith and trust is not a function of all sides being satisfied via “win/win solutions.” This is frequently a lie that silences the losers’ cries and allows the winners to think all is well with them on top. In good faith, we need to admit that many settlements feel unjust to one or all sides. We need to acknowledge and expect continual contestation over ‘final’ settlements because justice is just not the same for any of us. The mighty will fall and hate it. The lowly will not rise high enough and hate it. But is it possible in the face of loss and injustice to continue to aspire for more good faith and mutual trust among the shifting winners and losers?
We also might ask ourselves: Can Americans actually invite into conversation people who they see as holding dangerous attitudes? Can we sincerely and cautiously presume good faith in those who might desire to hurt us if they could get away with it legally? (Putting our church out of commission, making our marriages illegal, refusing to hire or serve us though qualified, etc?) This can feel like inviting your reformed abuser to live next door—clearly a risk too far for many.
Free speech at the limits. So, there is a limit to the presumption of good faith—and each of us might live to discover it. Some might feel capable of forgiveness that heals their own pain and victimhood. Those who discover this capacity and desire can stand like the heroic soldiers tortured in prison camps during WWII who stood up for the Marshall Plan. As Abe Lincoln probably would have affirmed, only with sincere care for our future will we now try to heal our own country’s wounds, bound up for so long. We wish that an easy fix for our troubles would appear, but there is no technology that can heal the horrible oppressions of the past and lead us to engage current conflicts with the mutual presumption of good faith between adversaries. The work ahead is daunting. Yet even with this painful realism, we are optimistic about the legitimacy of a way to courageously seek the whole truth together with our rivals and critics, prior victims, and oppressors.
So then, if advancing your cause effectively is actually what you want, good luck if you choose to project your malevolence and deceit onto your opponents. If you succeed, you will obliterate the lifeboats you will need when the next big surprise exposes how foolish your perfect strategy was. There is a deep truth in the myth of the weak saving the strong, the invisible few helping the visible many, the last becoming first, the unambitious, honorable Hobbits saving the world like the carpenter’s son was said to do. That is, those on top are blind to the strengths they lack to save themselves from disaster. And very often, those below hold the keys to these saving strengths. So, if you want to advance and sustain your cause in the face of dynamic challenges always ahead, make sure you include good faith ‘advisory’ conversations with your bothersome opponents, critics, rivals, along with the untouchables–at least until they prove to be lying enemies.
All of this does take some (more) growing up for many of us. When we are two years old we believe eliminating anything that gets in our way is how to make it. But as we mature, most of us learn from experience that we rarely achieve our objectives by shouting or shutting down our rivals because we will eventually need them to trust and collaborate with us in changing circumstances. This is never easy, but if we have abused rivals as worthless impediments, it becomes almost impossible without paying dearly for it. This is why the coercive imposition of obedience is always psychologically illegitimate, and it cracks like thin ice when the obedient have any chance to bolt.
By comparison, when people acquiesce to an influencer they deem legitimate, mutual respect and even trust are always possible. Yes, families, businesses, churches, or governments might sustain power by use of force, but to last for a long time, they must develop legitimacy granted freely by members who were honored by means that allowed mutual persuasion.
For a pluralistic society to thrive, continual contestation and collaboration with adversaries is the name of the game that has no end. Rival opponents—without losing integrity in the process—always leave the door open to learning more from each other that will increase the chance of grasping the whole truth together. Closing the door by presuming bad faith yields not only contemptuous resentment, but it also makes everyone more ignorant of the truth.
In the other direction, engaging an adversary in good faith allows for mutual persuasion with opponents whose interests compete with ours, whose beliefs we judge unbelievable, and whose values we find contemptible and disgusting. This uncomfortable work is the social-psychological basis for successful long-term democratic pluralism. And we would argue that avoiding the unpleasant work is ultimately and essentially, political childishness.
With the freewheeling policy we advance, we still insist on legal limits to free expression that disturbs public order. Sticks and stones can hurt my bones … and so can some words. But which ones—where and when? Each society in its own circumstance must contest and ultimately define the modern blasphemies that disturb the peace like pornographies that dangerously distort healthy sexual norms.
The license to free speech, limited by slander and inciting riot, is not without the risk of social misery. Some groups, keeping just within the law, behave with disgusting meanness, aiming to offend deeply enough to provoke illegal violent retaliation from contemptuous opponents. Should this be legal?
Gay-affirming folks will find it hard to see the good in allowing what they see as hate-encouraging “anti-gay” beliefs to remain as legal speech, and many conservative religious folks will see no good in government protection for “pro-gay” practices like same-sex marriage. Likewise, many believe that democratic order is too dangerously threatened by the public promotion of anti-democratic ideas. Once again, the three options present themselves: should we make contesting controversial ideals a private matter only, an unobstructed public matter, or a sagaciously-allowed carefully-censored public activity?
Missionaries for mutual conversion. The USA is suffering through a passive-aggressive stage of its own right now—not too strong to call a cultural disease. Happy political talk about unifying the country in consensus falls on cynical ears. We know the winners sometimes really do (at least for a time) take-all. But ‘all’ does not include the hearts and minds of the losers. The people disgusted with ‘politics’ are sometimes turned off to the contention. Other times, they are really distraught by their impotence to influence those whose values they despise. Almost always, however, it is the alienation of the rival groups that keeps a desire for unity at bay.
But can’t we ‘missionaries’ see why we have so little influence on the unconverted? Failed persuasion to unify under one consensus cannot be blamed completely on the stupid, arrogant, or evil nature of the other, can it? Let’s at least acknowledge that presuming bad faith or stupidity in those we aim to convert is a sure way to turn them off to our persuasions—and to keep us from desiring to learn anything from them. It’s dead-end dialogue that confirms bias and does more harm than good.
This essay series aims to disclose this truth so we can digest it: no matter our tribe, we can choose to push against these cultural forces and experiment in good faith with seeking the whole truth that we cannot obtain without our adversaries, critics, and rivals. We need then to teach our children that to have more influence on others they must risk (within limits) being open to the influence of honorable opponents—seeking the whole truth with them
In the end, we can no longer pretend we believe all sincere ideals and values to be equally true and good. Nor can we pretend that all ideals and values are ultimately reconcilable, or that they can politely co-exist in close proximity. No! The reality is more difficult and true: we can only co-resist and collaborate in our mixed-up world.
Here is a perfect pithy paraphrase of Blaise Pascal’s (1623-1662) statement about our responsibility to discern carefully between good and bad faith in our opponents: “I am not convinced you are right, but I am persuaded you are trustworthy.” And, “I am convinced you are right, but I am not persuaded you are trustworthy.”
Someday unity might be orchestrated by a Greater Power, but meanwhile, we must instead take responsibility for what we believe to be true and right. Then, the tough, but oh so powerful, question arises for each of us: Is our belief and value system, our religion, or our God big enough, strong enough, resilient enough to make space for the contaminating evil and the tempting righteousness of those who promote rival ways?
This of course has its limits. The contestants aim to win—to persuade the other to convert. This is not an innocuous game that merely celebrates diversity and openness. It is a strategy to persuade the rival to convert sincerely. In many cases, the contest can go on indefinitely. In other cases, coercion is required to end it if persuasion fails. Both ways are rife with risk in societies that desire to promote good faith peacefulness and free contestation between rivals.
The Big Invitation: We need to teach each other the world-changing benefit of engaging in (not evading) mutually persuasive disagreements over important matters of truth and purpose and values. Without going into difficult conversations with open expression of our real beliefs and motives, we live shallow, phony lives that do not matter to each other—political objects in each other’s way, not humans interested in sharing our influence.
Politics and religion, massive social forces, are first personal. To change our society you should find someone in your personal life who is not like you, who does not share your beliefs or values, with whom you are likely uncomfortable, that for some good reason you want to influence. Ask yourself if you presume the person is so stupid, duped, or evil that you could not have a real conversation with them. Then ask yourself if you are willing to extend a presumption of good faith to that person, thinking they might be pretty smart, world-wise, and good-hearted after all. Further, ask yourself if you are willing to be open to that person’s influence. If you really want to change things, invite them to meet for a private conversation to get to know them better with respect to some issue of disagreement. (Brace yourself for an acceptance!) After your conversation, engaged in good faith, you will likely feel more confident that you and your fellow citizens or tribe members can thrive together in tension and goodwill, as both trustworthy opponents and effective collaborators. If you do discover you are truly enemies that desire to eliminate each other, at least it will be clear who you should not trust. What’s not to like about those outcomes?