MBI Newsletter

Newsletter # 42— May 3, 2021

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Bad Faith Actors SMASH Collaboration and Good Governance



Bad Faith Actors

by Guy Burgess

For years, the conflict and peacebuilding field has focused on limiting the terrible costs of destructive and, often, violent conflict, while also promoting the kind of mutually-beneficial problem solving that is essential to advancing the human condition. This work has largely been based on the belief that, once one strips away the overlay of destructive conflict dynamics, most everyone can realize that it is in their best interest to join in good-faith efforts to build a society in which everyone would like to live.

Good-Faith Democratic Skills In this effort to reconcile deeply-divided communities and transform their destructive relationships into collaborative partnerships, the field has recognized the enormous difficulties involved and peacebuilders certainly understand the often Sisyphian nature of their work. To meet these challenges, the field has developed a sophisticated array of interventions designed to:

  • Reframe zero-sum, us-vs-them interactions in positive-sum, we-are-all-in-this-together ways,
  • Show people how to identify and pursue mutually-beneficial ways of resolving us-vs-them conflicts,
  • Use truth and reconciliation-type processes to move beyond the “unrightable wrongs” of the past,
  • Reverse the escalation spiral's amplification of relatively minor disputes in ways that can cross the threshold into mutual hate and violence,
  • Correct communication problems that lead people to develop inaccurate and overly threatening images of the "other,"
  • Limit factual disagreements through joint data collection and analysis, providing facts that are trustworthy, trusted, and correctly understood,
  • Use these trustworthy facts as a basis for collaborative problem-solving efforts that develop mutually-beneficial solutions to joint problems.

The bulk of the Beyond Intractability system and the field as a whole has been focused on helping people work through the details of how to achieve these and related objectives.

In order to do this kind of work successfully, most peacebuilders try to give everyone (sometimes even the most vicious warriors) the benefit of the doubt and offer them a way to escape the endless cycle of bitter conflict and violence.  In an effort to draw these potential “spoilers” into the process, peacebuilders have, historically, been reluctant to question the underlying good-faith motivations of the parties. But this approach has some drawbacks.

The Bad-Faith Actor Problem This reluctance to recognize and then defuse "bad-faith actors” before they derail peace or reconciliation processes, we believe, is one reason why the success of peacebuilding efforts has been much more limited than hoped. If we are to increase our rate of successful peacebuilding and reconciliation, we believe that we need to develop more effective ways of dealing with these bad-faith actors.

We see this as a four-part process.

  • First, we need to understand what motivates people to actively work to amplify conflicts and undermine collaborative democracy.
  • Second, we need to understand the many ways in which modern society is vulnerable to such efforts and what we might do to reduce those vulnerabilities.
  • Third, we need to promote much more widespread public awareness of the tactics that bad-faith actors use to exploit these vulnerabilities in ways that advance their narrow, selfish interests at the expense of the common good. 
  • And fourth, we need to help people and society in general to develop ways to surmount the challenges these bad-faith actors put in our way as we try to make decisions that are best for us, our families, our community, and our nations.

In this essay we will look at the principal types of bad-faith actors. In a second essay, we will look at what makes us vulnerable to these actors and what we might be able to do to reduce that vulnerability.

Power-Over Political Advocacy — In doing this, we could start with the challenges posed by foreign powers seeking to destabilize our society, politicians that aspire to authoritarian power, hyper-competitive and ruthless businesses, or the news and communications industry that has discovered that they can make a lot of money exacerbating- conflicts and then selling coverage of those conflicts. Instead, we think it's better to start with the many ways in which politically active citizens, often unconsciously, become part of the bad-faith actor problem. This tendency, we think, reflects serious shortcomings in civic education and the way in which most of us tend to think about democracy and political conflict.

From an early age, we are encouraged to decide for ourselves what we believe, and then fight for those beliefs (to the maximum extent that the law allows). We are encouraged to imagine the ideal society and then fight to make that society a reality. We are not asked to imagine what our fellow citizens, who often come from very different social, economic, and cultural perspectives, might think of our vision and whether they would like to live in such a society (or whether such a society is something that they will feel compelled to oppose with every fiber of their being).

While we used to believe that a political version of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" would operate and that conflict dynamics would ultimately produce the best compromise of competing visions, over the last 20 or 30 years, more and more people have lost faith in the process of governance and “compromise.”  They have replaced those ideals with an all-out struggle for social dominance in which competing factions, in a desperate effort to prevail, try to gain the advantage by chipping away at democratic norms and pushing the taboo lines as far as they can think they can get away with. 

Although this seems like a change from past behavior, it is simply a modern manifestation of hardball, power-over democracy that has historically produced the never-ending stream of social injustices that so many people are now rebelling against. In this sense, contemporary politics can reasonably be interpreted as a big fight over who will get to dominate whom in the years ahead.  You can, for example, see the threat that the right sees in the left in these relatively moderate articles on the woke and the un-woke and the great awokening.  And, conversely, you can see the threat that the left sees in the right in these profiles of Josh Hawley and Bill Barr.  In both cases, we see these people as bad-faith actors since their focus is on total domination, rather than mutual tolerance and respectful coexistence. It seems clear that the democratic ideal (not it's historical reality) can never emerge from such a struggle (nor can the reconciled society imagined by peacebuilders).

In our increasingly globalized and diverse society, with ever-more competing power centers, there are two keys to avoiding this fate. The first focuses on building the skills and structures needed to support good-faith democratic governance. The second focuses on undermining the success of and support for power-over governance strategies.  The goal of both approaches is to get partisans who want to dominate others to realize that they're unlikely to be able to do so successfully.  Once they realize that, then it becomes easier to persuade them to pursue good-faith, collaborative, compromise-oriented strategies. This can then be reinforced with programs designed to further delegitimize divisive political tactics and with institutional changes that make collaborative democracy easier and political domination harder.

Aspiring Authoritarians — This effort to shift to good-faith democratic politics is, of course just one aspect of the bad-faith actor problem. Another, more serious problem that has to be addressed is the "divide and conquer actor" problem. The fastest and surest route to authoritarian control of a society is based on inflaming partisan tensions and convincing people that the "other" poses an existential threat. Aspiring strongmen try to position themselves as the kind of ruthless and effective defender that their group needs, if it is going to prevail.  In making this argument, would-be authoritarians commonly claim the need for extraordinary powers and protection from “meddlesome” laws and investigations.  They tell their supporters not to worry about issues like (their own) corruption—explaining that such charges are nothing more than a sinister attempt by the other side to undermine the group cohesiveness that the fight for survival demands. These trends are now being reflected in a global movement away from democracy and in fears that, in the future, the US could face a much more serious authoritarian threat

The News and Communication Media The power and influence of the above two types of bad-faith actors is reinforced by their symbiotic relationship with a third group of actors—the news and communication media. These giant corporations are, despite their seemingly monopolistic power, in an intense and constant battle for audience attention and the revenue that comes with it. If these organizations are going to prosper (or maybe even survive), then they have to do whatever it takes to grab and hold an audience sufficient to generate needed revenue.  Because of an array of psychological vulnerabilities that we will talk about in the next newsletter, this seems to be most effectively done by amplifying our already bitter social conflicts and then providing people with coverage of those conflicts.  Beyond this, there is also the threat that the partisan news media can become part of the political power structure on both the left and right.

Hyper-competitive BusinessesThis kind of intense competition also extends to other businesses besides media  In our highly competitive capitalistic system, companies can't afford to be too altruistic. Instead, they can be counted on to use the full range of scrupulous and unscrupulous tactics to influence public and private sector decisions in directions that are more favorable to them, even if they are less favorable from the perspective of the larger society.  Amazon's hardball efforts to oppose unionization of its workforce is one example.

Foreign Provocateurs — Finally, there are foreign powers who see themselves as engaged in a great geopolitical struggle in which both the success of their countries and their own political survival depends upon doing everything that they can to strengthen their position relative to the position of their adversaries. As the Mueller report and others have documented, this includes efforts to destabilize the United States and other societies through a variety of sophisticated propaganda techniques aimed at amplifying our conflicts and undermining trust in democratic institutions. In doing this, they are taking advantage of the open structure of free, democratic societies and their systems of political communication.  It even seems likely that they have found ways of increasing their effectiveness by colluding with domestic-bad-faith political actors.  While the magnitude and impact of such efforts is still shrouded in secrecy, there is reason to believe that this is a significant contributor to our political dysfunction.

As our initial contribution to efforts to address these problems, we have recently posted a series of video lectures with more information on the bad-faith factor threat and options for addressing it. We are very much interested in hearing your reactions to this preliminary set of materials and, especially, any suggested improvements you might have.

  • Challenging "Bad-Faith" Actors Who Seek to Amplify and Exploit Our Conflicts -An overview of how different types of "bad-faith" actors  exploit our vulnerabilities and undermine "good-faith" efforts to make democracy work. 
  • “Bad-Faith” Actors--Our Sources of Vulnerability -An examination of psychological, social, and communication-related factors that make us vulnerable to those who wish to amplify and exploit our conflicts.
  • Types of "Bad-Faith" Actors - A description of the four different groups of bad-faith actors: "I'll fight you for it" advocates, ruthless competitors, divide-and-conquer actors, and Malevolent nihilists. The first step in countering these actors is recognizing that they exist, and they cannot be dealt with just by giving them the "benefit of the doubt."
  • “Bad-Faith” Actor Tactics - This video discusses the various tactics bad-faith actors use, and most importantly, things we (and our governments) can do to reduce our vulnerabilities and counter bad-faith tactics.

Recent Posts:

From the CCI Blog:

From the Conflict Frontiers Seminar: 

From the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar: 

From the Colleague Activities Blog:

From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog

  • On the dignity of work, AOC’s view has replaced FDR’s -- Amid all the political posturing and showmanship, a look at an underlying philosophical difference that separates right and left-leaning worldviews. #mbi_context -- Apr 07
  • The Black Lives Matter Curriculum Has an Unintended Lesson -- An interview with a black parent and school board candidate who argues that the curriculum meant to combat racism may be actually be making things worse. #mbi_context -- Apr 07
  • Do Not Look Away From Evil -- The first step to stopping Anti-Asian hate is to see it clearly. We need to go beyond our preconceptions and address the real problem. #mbi_context -- Apr 06
  • Violent Extremism in America -- For those struggling to understand extremism, a series of interviews with former extremists and their families about radicalization and deradicalization. #mbi_context -- Apr 06
  • Britain: Land of Liberty No More -- A disturbing report from Britain that emphasizes how quickly today's destructive politics can start taking away the liberties we cherish. #mbi_context -- Apr 05
  • There Is No Such Thing as "White" Math -- Evidence that, in our zeal to fight racism, we may be getting carried away. #mbi_context -- Apr 04
  • Democracy Is (Still) Worth Defending -- An exploration of the costs of putting our narrow self-interests ahead of our collective interest in building a democracy that protects us all. #mbi_context -- Apr 04
  • How Do We Stop the Parade of Gun Deaths? -- More sensible analysis of the gun violence problem from Nick Kristof and a realistic proposal for limiting the new threat posed by "ghost guns." #mbi_context -- Apr 03
  • America's True Believers and Their Gutless Enablers -- For those who have wondered how the extremes of the "cancel culture" have become such a powerful political force, an intriguing hypothesis. #mbi_context -- Apr 03
  • The Mod Squad -- In Trump’s America, progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found fame. Now, it’s the turn of moderates. #mbi_context -- Mar 31
  • Russia Studied How to Get Americans to Make Mistakes -- Reflections on the the latest information about the success that Russian disinformation campaigns are having in amplifying our political dysfunction. #mbi_context -- Mar 31
  • I Beg to Differ -- A look at the new generation of social and political contrarians that have emerged on Substack as an alternative to the orthodoxies of mainstream media. #mbi_context -- Mar 30
  • White People Don't Have a Monopoly on Hatred -- A reminder that we are all susceptible to intergroup stereotyping and hostility and a look at how the right question can change things. #mbi_context -- Mar 30
  • Fighting Back, At Last -- A look at the rapidly emerging response to progressive illiberalism--one of today's most consequential emerging conflicts. #mbi_context -- Mar 29
  • Mutual-Aid Societies: Americans Knit Their Safety Nets -- A hopeful and uplifting story of people coming together to help one another through the pandemic and the other struggles of life. #mbi_context -- Mar 29
  • How to Reduce Shootings -- An exceptionally perceptive and well documented look at what can realistically be done to limit gun violence and mass shootings. #mbi_context -- Mar 28
  • Race and False Hate Crime Narratives -- A ontroversial, deeply disturbing, and also persuasive argument that, in our zeal to fight hate, we may actually be promoting it through unfounded accusations. #mbi_context -- Mar 28

All CC-MOOS Posts


About the MBI Newsletters

Every few weeks, we will compile BI/MBI/CCI news, along with selected the new posts from our various seminars and blogs into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

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