Academic Bad Faith

One of the most important concepts I have learned is what Jean-Paul Sartre has called “mauvaise foi”, usually translated into English as bad faith. Bad faith applies to a lot of things around us. It illustrates what happens when we are complicit in structures of dishonesty, structures of oppression, but pretend to be the opposite. It happens when we lie to ourselves that we do not have the choice to speak up or fight against this oppression, because we do not have the freedom to. Bad faith is a form of self-deception. In his introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre describes the paternalistic French colonialist, who practices bad faith when he believes that his treatment of the colonized is good and deserves gratitude from them, rather than anger, violence and revolution.

I was embroiled in a social media dustup yesterday that to me demonstrated a form of academic bad faith. I won’t go into too much detail, but essentially screenshots of a private discussion on Facebook were shared with someone, who shared them on Twitter publicly. Those screenshots showed me complaining about being “whitewomansplained.” “Whitewomansplaining” is a combination of the terms “mansplaining”–when a man patronizingly assumes that he knows more than a woman about any topic and proceeds to explain to her, sometimes incorrectly, things that she already knows, and “whitesplaining”–when white people define for people of color what should or should not be considered racist, therefore revealing their own racism. I complained about being “whitewomansplained” because I felt I was being patronizingly told how to behave in a public space on social media by a white woman. Immediately, once someone screenshotted my discussion, I was accused of bullying the white woman and things escalated on social media, largely without any of my own participation.

What struck me the most about the dustup is the ways in which it was automatically assumed that there was no validity to the concept of being “whitewomansplained”–because, presumably, all of us are in higher education and have (or are working towards) PhDs, where we are supposed to have learned about issues of structural inequality and identity politics. This assumption, I am finding, is less and less true–not all of us have the same kind of knowledge of these issues, or sympathy for them. We assume that because we are in academia, we must somehow be in a golden realm where no one ever does anything racist, sexist, homophobic or ableist, because we have so much learning we must be above these things.

This is academic bad faith. Bad faith is assuming because we are in academia that these structures of oppression do not exist in our world. Bad faith is assuming that microaggressions never occur in academia. Bad faith is being arrogant enough to assume that we are always conscious and cognizant of our power in relation to others, and that we never abuse it. Bad faith is assuming that we are always aware of our privilege, or that we have none.

We need to realize that even though we are in academia, that structures of oppression do exist, and micro and macroaggressions take place every day, every hour, and that we might be too privileged to notice. We need to admit to ourselves that sometimes we make mistakes and we are complicit in these structures and acts. To do otherwise is to practice bad faith; to think that we are simply doing what we are doing because we do not have freedom to act otherwise; and to lie to ourselves about the consequences and ethics of our positions and actions. My friends in less privileged positions have taken me to task on various occasions for my own blindness to my privilege, and for these interventions I am grateful. We should be better.

Academic Bad Faith

2 Responses

  1. When it’s established that everyone in academia benefits from SOME degree of privilege, and also likewise established that we’re almost ALL getting fucked, it can sometimes be hard for some of us more privileged to remember that we aren’t all getting fucked in the same way, or to the same degree.

    Tad May 9, 2014 at 2:56 pm #
  2. I really appreciate this measured and thoughtful post, and was so sorry to see the way this all unfolded on Twitter. While it WAS unfolding, I found myself thinking about privilege, and how I myself might react if I got accused of “whitewomansplaining.” No one has called me on my BS in some time (another benefit of privilege, I know); but I know it doesn’t feel good. I like to think that, if this happened today, after my initial rush of defensiveness, I would try to ask the person to tell me more about it. Having lobbed my own accusations of, say, sexism, I know that they are often not just about the single instance at hand, but about a whole history of similar behavior from a whole mob of people—whether or not the particular Man is Himself a Sexist (which, as the critical race and feminist theorists like you keep telling us again and again, is really not the point anyway). I like to think, too, that even if I continued to disagree with the accusation, I’d try to communicate in good faith, myself. All hard to do in 140 characters, of course, but I have seen people (Amanda Phillips comes to mind) pull it off with tremendous aplomb. I appreciate your returning to this issue in the more measured format of the blog. . .and I also, on a personal note, find you just a terrific joy to work with! So thank you for that too!

    Siobhan Senier May 10, 2014 at 9:11 am #