Types of "Bad-Faith" Actors

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

April, 2021

About the "Bad-Faith Actor" Series

Traditionally, the conflict and peacebuilding field has concentrated on supporting the good-faith efforts of citizens trying to find a way to move beyond their differences and build a society in which everyone would like to live.  This challenging task has been the focus of the bulk of the Beyond Intractability system and, especially, the "Good-Faith Actor" section of the new  Constructive Conflict Guide which we are creating.

In recent years, as we have begun to understand why so many conflicts are becoming even more intractable, and why democracy itself is now in so much trouble, we have come to the conclusion that we have been neglecting a big part of the problem—that being the threat posed by "Bad-Faith Actors" who are actively trying to undermine collaborative, democratic governance. As an initial step toward adding coverage of this critical topic to the Beyond Intractability system, we are now posting this series of four videos and associated articles.

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


Full Transcript:

Slide 1: Hi this is Guy Burgess. On this post, I am going to talk about the different types of bad-faith actors.

Slide 2: Now, as you may remember from some of the earlier videos in this series, this is all part of the new Guide to More Constructive Approaches to Intractable Conflict that we’re putting together on Beyond Intractability. Here the focus is on Part Three of the Guide, challenging the bad-faith actors who are seeking to amplify and exploit our conflicts in ways that undermine good-faith efforts to make democracy work for the benefit of all.

Slide 3: Now, one way to think about what we’re trying to do in this series of posts is expand the curriculum for civic education that's now finally being recognized as something that we really need to focus on in this country. We have taken democracy for granted for far too long, and we are discovering that we’re in real trouble as a result.

So what we want to do is go beyond just a discussion of the relatively straightforward civic curriculum: the three branches of government, the Bill of Rights, that sort of thing, and start looking at the kinds of traps, the kinds of tactics, that bad-faith actors use to undermine democracy and to help people understand how to defend the larger society from those kinds of actions.

Slide 4: Now, it's important to understand here that we’re not just talking about the super villains as the bad-faith actors, though we do use this picture from Nazi Germany as the masthead for this section of the website because this is how bad it could get. And we really need to pay attention if we’re going to resist what will be a 21st century form of tyranny, as opposed to this 20th century form of tyranny.

Slide 5: We've identified four major groups of bad-faith actors. I want to go through each of these and give you a sense of what folks are trying to do and why, and how that undermines democracy. Then in the next video I will talk about the tactics that they use to do this and at least some of the defenses that are possible to block those actions. This is a relatively new area for the conflict field. This is an area where we haven't devoted enough attention. So we don't have simple effective solutions. If we did, we wouldn't be in such trouble! But this is an area where a lot of folks have to start working very hard to develop much more effective measures of dealing with this problem.

"I'll Fight You for It" Advocates

Slide 6: We’ll will start with what we call the “I'll-fight-you-for-it advocates.”

Slide 7: Part of the problem is that we've never been all that good at living up to the democratic ideal.

Slide 8: Often, politics has reverted to what I called in one of the earlier videos in this series “I'll-fight-you-for-it rules”, where social policy is determined by who is the most powerful and who is able to suppress whom. And that's not really what democracy is supposed to be. We are supposed to pursue a good-faith effort to build a society in which everyone would like to live. However, we often lapse into this business of “they are the enemy and I've got a fight and I’ve got to defeat them.

Slide 9: Part of the reason we do that is that we often fear the other side. If you go back to the earlier video on psychological vulnerabilities, you’ll remember that the fear part of the brain is wired ahead of the hope part of the brain. So we see in other groups things that make us fearful. And we often draw exaggerated images and how much of a threat they are. That motivates our desire to fight them harder and harder. And that drives the escalation spiral.

Slide 10: You can see this in the United States, at least in 2021, and this changes over time, obviously. Here are a couple of articles that describe, in terms of Josh Haley and Bill Barr and their beliefs about Christianity, the evil that the left sees in them. These are articles that paint a picture of people who believe very strongly in Christian ideals, and think that we should be a Christian nation. And they are going to use all the powers available to them to see that that happens. And the left is afraid of that. That may well be overstating the case, but that's the fear that drives the left and it drives this I”ll-fight-you-for-it politics that we’re currently trying to work our way through.

Slide 11: On the right you get articles like this about what is being called “wokeness.”  That is the left-wing view on a whole range of culture war issues.These are the kinds of articles that folks with a more conservative orientation look at, and say, “My gosh! We can’t possibly let the left take control of society!”

Slide 12: Now these are from relatively moderate news outlets that try to look at things sort of impartially. Now, just think about how much less sympathetic and how much angrier this kind of discussion is in news sources where people are sort of free to let their anger flow!

Slide 13: What that's left us with is a political war in which the left and the right are using all powers available to them in an attempt to dominate, or at least not be dominated. That's not good faith democracy! Somehow we have to figure out a way to back away from this kind of politics. But it is the dominant politics the moment. So that's one of the motivations behind these “I’ll-fight-you-for-it actors They may be fighting for things that make sense from their cultural beliefs, but it's not the same as a good-faith effort to make democracy work.

Slide 14: Beyond this, there is what I call an “advocacy industrial complex.” This is illustrated on this website where you can see a list of all of the various public interest groups out there that are fighting for this, that, or the other cause. The people who work there have jobs that are dependent on keeping up “the good fight.”

Slide 15: You can paint a picture of all of these folks who are actually profiting from conflict as “war profiteers.” They are sort like gun merchants who are trying to sell guns so people will fight harder with one another and they will make money along the way. There’s certainly some of that that goes on.

Slide 16: But the advocacy industrial complex is more than that. I like to tell this story to illustrate the point that I call the “March of Dimes” effect. The March of Dimes was a campaign to fight polio. And they succeeded! And so we built this entire public interest lobbying organization to advance a worthy public goal, and they succeeded! So now, much to the March of Dimes’ credit, they moved on. They changed their focus to birth defects. But a lot of other interest groups don’t do that. When they succeed, the see that they still have a large infrastructure that they want to maintain. So they still keep fighting the same “good fight.” This goes back to Upton Sinclair's famous line “It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” This implies to advocates too! They can't really say, “Hey, we won!  So let's stop the fight!  Or “we can come to a compromise agreement.” You've got this whole structure that's pushing things ahead. So that's part of what leads people to continue to fight, rather than to try to pursue good-faith compromise.

Slide 17: Another part of the problem is what I call the “no partner for peace problem” This happens when there’s a group that says “we’ve had it with this all fight you for it stuff. We’re willing to to work out some sort of compromise and try to build a future we can all live with. But the time when people come to that sort of worldview tends not to be the same. One group wants to come to the table and negotiate, but the other side does not. They still want to fight. Also, as I talked about this earlier in the Vulnerability video, we don't really have a neat hierarchy in society, where everybody's worldview is the same and there's some agreed-upon representative who will go to the table and negotiate a deal for everybody. If somebody does negotiate a deal, then there are likely to be other folks who say “I didn't want them to negotiate! I want to continue the fight! So the bottom line is that there are a lot of different advocacy groups that are going to keep wanting to fight for what they believe in. And they get carried away. That makes good-faith democracy not possible. So that’s part of our problem.

Successful (Ruthless) Competitors

Slide 18:  There's another group of folks whoare successful competitors. We have a very competitive economy ion which Darwinian rules apply. If you're not, really, really good--which often means are ruthless—you are going to fail. You're going to disappears. So another thing that provides society with a bunch of bad faith actors is this kind of ruthless competition.

Slide 19: We talked in the previous slide show about the revenue model for media and how they have to attract a large audience or they somebody else will do a better job at that and they'll be out of business.

Slide 20: Now the folks that are really good at this have a dominant position in society. Often, they do this by inflaming passions which then inflame conflicts. They do this to get people to pay attention to their news sources, which drives their revenue. You certainly see this in the success of Rupert Murdoch's empire on the political right.

Slide 21: You can see the same sort of thing on the political left where The New York Times has turned into a very, very profitable business by appealing to people who like the more left-leaning version of events. This goes back to some of the vulnerabilities we talked about earlier, when I said that everybody likes to tune into sources that tell them that they ere are the good guys, and the other guys are the bad guys. You also get a concentration of power effect that I talked about earlier, where as these media empires get to be bigger and bigger and more influential, they drive out everybody else.

Slide 22: We've now reached the point where a few sources dominate news on one side or the other.

Slide 23: The same principle extends over more general business competition. The way businesses like Google come to dominate, while businesses like Yahoo do not, is because they play hardball competition politics. That isn't about good-faith democratic negotiation and sharing. It’s the opposite! It tends to lead to inequalities instead. A lot of the social tensions that this article talks about are caused by the tactics that Amazon used to defeat a unionization vote in Alabama just today. So that's another part of the problem. We have an economic system that pushes people toward I’ll-fight-you-for-it competition. That’s very hard to square with the more egalitarian vision of a good-faith democracy.

Divide and Conquer Actors

Slide 24: And then you have outright divide-and-conquer actors. Tthese are unscrupulous politicians that are trying to sow division to advance their political position or their economic position (or both).

Slide 25: The Dictators Handbook is all about how you do this—it’s a good review of dictatorial tactics. If you want to start thinking about how to be a dictator--or how to defend yourself against one—this is a good place to start.

Slide 26: There is certainly a global resurgence of tyrants that are described in a whole flood of articles. These are just a few I chose demonstrate some of the ideas these “tyrant wannabes” have. There's good reason to believe that the democracy that we thought was ascendant with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s is now in deep trouble.

Slide 27: And this is not just happening in other parts of the world. There is lots of reason to believe that the United States is edging towards authoritarianism, too, in one way or another. Lots has been written about Donald Trump as the “authoritarian wannabe” president, but it's more than that. Here's an article about how the next aspiring authoritarian politician in the United States might be a whole lot more competent than Mr. Trump.

And there's lots of reason that conservatives fear authoritarianism on the political left too. It isn't just an authoritarian threat on the right. You have to look at the threat more broadly than that.

Slide 28: There are also geopolitical rivals in our geopolitics. Superpower tensions and smaller-power tensions are still a major driver on conflicts. These guys are adifferent kind of bad faith actor. They are not so much interested in exerting control over society,

Slide 29: rather, they seek to destabilize and weaken a society. There’s a lot that's been written on hybrid warfare as a way to do this. Here is an article that Anna Appelbaum wrote that updates the latest findings from the intelligence community on what the Russians did try to influence the U.S. election. It describes the Russian disinformation campaign and how they are trying to talk Americans into hurting their own country. These kinds of destabilization operations are being used pretty widely. So that’s another part of the bad-faith actor problem. All of these actors tend to use some of the same tactics. So when we get to the next video which talks about tactics, you'll start to get more of a sense of what we have to do to defend ourselves.

Malevolent Nihilists

Slide 30: There's one last group of bad faith actors that is a bit terrifying, but also worth mentioning.

Slide 31: They are what you might call “malevolent nihilists.” Here is an article that traces the history of nihilism. This notion arises from people who are so alienated from society that they think their future is so hopeless, that they just want to destroy society. This is somewhat similar to people on the left and the right who look back at the history of US society and global society and western civilization, but just focus on the bad things. They conclude that these societies are all worthless and it all ought to be tossed in the dustbin of history.

We just suffered a terrible shooting just down the street from our house, where a gunman came up to Boulder and for no apparent reason. just started killing people at our local grocery store. That sort of the extreme of nihilism, where you just want to destroy people and things. So that’s a kind of bad faith actor who is different.  They are a good bit less rational than the others, but also very dangerous, especially as we get more and more powerful weapons in the hands of more and more people.

Slide 32: So the bottom line here is to never underestimate this bad faith actor threat. We can't just assume that everybody's a good-faith actor and not take the steps needed to defend ourselves.


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