It’s Hard to Be a Liberal

May 12, 2020 Updated: June 9, 2020


Eighty years ago, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre identified a particular human behavior that undermined the personal freedom and responsibility he insisted every person assumes right up to the instant of death.

Sartre was an atheist and a radical. He admired Stalin and loathed the United States. His personal life was chaotic. But his analysis of a type of self-deception nicely explains the peculiar state of denial into which 21st-century liberals have fallen.

He called it “bad faith” (mauvaise foi) and devoted several pages to it in his masterwork, “Being and Nothingness.” The language in the book is dense and existential (“Being and non-being,” “the flight from anguish,” “the Other,” “pure nihilating freedom”), but the illustrations of bad faith are accessible.

In one of them, a young woman, attractive and proper, is asked out on a date by a roving man and she accepts. His intentions are clear, Sartre says: He wants to seduce her. The young lady, however, chooses not to notice his desire. She’s not naïve, but she feels better when she interprets him as “respectful and discreet.” It’s just a friendly overture, she prefers to think, a chance to relax and converse.

At dinner in a restaurant, they talk and laugh, his interest grows, and he wonders when to make a move. That will be the moment when the date turns overtly sexual and she will have to respond. She will have to signal yes or no, but until that time, she pushes the prospect out of her mind. Unconsciously or half-consciously, she ignores that eventuality, reading every step toward it as innocent. (This was 25 years before the sexual revolution.)

In fact, she’d rather not think about sexual desire at all. From the very start, something goes “click” in her head and the sexual basis of his invitation dissipates. She interprets his advances as pleasantries, that’s all. His compliments sound like the nice remarks of her friends. She will not follow them to the final step.

He anticipates getting her alone; she won’t imagine anything beyond the present moment at the table with waiter and guests nearby. Even when he reaches across the table and touches her fingers, the denial continues, but in a new mode. It forces a decision, but not a happy one.

“To leave her hand there is to consent in herself to flirt,” Sartre says, and she’s not ready for that yet. But “to withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony which gives the hour its charm.” Neither option works.

So, Sartre continues, she concocts a third way: She actually disengages herself from her own hand. He calls it a “divorce” of body and soul, her hand “inert between the warm hands of her companion—neither consenting nor resisting—a thing.” Meanwhile, she herself becomes “all intellect.” It’s as if she’s watching someone else receive his attentions.

She is in bad faith. She won’t acknowledge his sexual nature or her own, either. It’s not that she’s lying to herself—Sartre says that nobody can really lie to him or herself; you have to believe your own lies, to trust what you are saying is true. Or, when inconvenient facts pop up, you twist them into a better reality, mostly unconscious of what you are doing. You go along with the pretense by pretending it’s not a pretense, though you may sense how fragile it is. You get a little nervous, perhaps, but maintain the illusion. This is her strategy.

Now, look at the situation of liberals today and the number of pretenses they must respect. “Diversity is our strength” … “It doesn’t matter who [sic] you love” … “Tolerance and inclusion” … “Everybody welcome” … the catechism never stops.

The messages appear outside the liberal churches in my town, fill the columns of newspapers, and echo in the mouths of college presidents and CEOs and politicians. Those patent falsehoods slide smoothly through left-wing zones with nary a whisper of challenge. They are as regular as the rosary and the Pledge of Allegiance, and just as authoritative and routine. They are spoken and absorbed, period.

Nobody probes and audits those slogans, in spite of the liberal’s pride in his intellectual rigor. If in reply to “It doesn’t matter who you love,” you said, “Wait, what about a woman who loves a man who abuses her?” it would stop the ceremony cold. People would look at you as an outsider. You have broken etiquette. You are guilty of wrong-think.

It’s a curious ritual for a liberal to undergo. The obedience certainly doesn’t fit the ideal mold. The great liberals of the past from Voltaire to John Stuart Mill to H.L. Mencken to Richard Rorty wouldn’t allow it. They valued science above tradition, evidence over convention. Dogma was for the benighted past, they insisted again and again. You can’t be a liberal and shield beliefs from scrutiny.

What to do, then, about these sacred axioms of the left? How does a liberal accede to them in the sanctioned credulous manner and still remain an enlightened, evidence-based, rational liberal thinker? Bad faith is the solution.

Bad Faith and Diversity

Consider what happens to a liberal when he hears, “Diversity is our strength.” Straight off, he cannot entertain it as a supposition. Those who voice it don’t put it forward for consideration. No, it’s to be accepted as an established fact.

But for our liberal to take it in as an article of faith, he must expel the experiences he has had in which unity and uniformity proved necessary to success. At critical moments, he has seen, people in a group must come together, think and act as one, suspend their differences, and drop the diversity insistence. Common sense tells them so.

In the middle of the diversity litany, though, that kind of common sense must stop. What our liberal has seen and heard with his own eyes and ears must fall out. Concrete evidence gives way to moral acclamation. To join it, he must deny his own memory.

That’s just one self-deception. Mr. Liberal also has to skip the sensible semantic question: What kind of diversity are we talking about? The liberal has in mind diversity of thought and opinion, the cornerstone of Mill’s marketplace of ideas and intellectual progress. But, of course, that’s not what “Diversity is our strength” signifies. It calls for multiple identities, not multiple perspectives. Diverse skin colors count more than diverse outlooks. Contemporary diversiphiles want group representatives in the room, not unique individuals.

That poses a problem for our liberal, for group identity crosses the traditional liberal focus on individual rights. Yes, liberals often support programs that treat individuals as members of a group, for instance, initiatives to increase the hiring of women in Silicon Valley, but that’s because they believe that individual females have suffered discrimination in tech workplaces. Approaching the problem with announcements such as “Diversity is our strength” obscures the single person too much, turning the remedy of anti-discrimination into “our” benefit instead of this and that victim’s compensation.

This requires of the liberal another mental somersault. He favors diversity of outlook, but he can’t attach specific outlooks to racial or sexual identities, for that would commit the no-no of “biological essentialism.” Instead, he must suppress the “What kind of diversity?” query entirely. In other words, he must turn off his critical thinking.

Finally, because liberals tend to reduce politics to policy, our man is inclined to wonder about where the diversity declaration goes once it is implemented. What policies does “Diversity is our strength” encourage?

Well, if the mantra is true, then we must create programs that will foster it: affirmative action in admission and hiring; grants for women and minorities in science; diversity training in corporate America … That’s a no-brainer. But it poses yet another discomfort for our liberal. It shifts the focus from opportunity to outcomes, measuring success not by the removal of discrimination but by the simple tabulation of demographic results. Access is secondary, the proportionate presence of identities primary.

Liberalism doesn’t like that. It doesn’t try to ensure happiness for all, only the pursuit of happiness. Properly applied, liberalism doesn’t control what people do (apart from a nudge here and there); it only guarantees a level playing field in which people are free to make their own decisions. “Diversity is our strength” isn’t satisfied with that kind of equal opportunity.

The prophets of diversity go further, well beyond where liberals want to go, and liberals once again must suppress the implications. Like Sartre’s young lady, they cling to the situation with an “all-intellect” eye, in the abstract. The messy sausage-making of a sufficiently diverse student body and workplace, awards nominations and political leadership, boardroom, and club membership is best not examined too closely.

It makes them uncomfortable, and the feeling is getting worse. Liberals like the benign version of diversity, tolerance, gender fluidity, open borders, etc. The hard versions disturb them. When diversity slides into quotas, tolerance acts intolerantly, and cancel culture spreads, they close their eyes. Conservatives know the process is inevitable, that “inclusion” evolves into coercion and expulsion, but liberals prefer not to witness it. They don’t like it when conservatives point it out, either.

Bad faith is their solution. It’s a compromise, whereby the liberal accepts the principle and ignores the practice. He won’t face the consequences and details that unfold as leftists take control.


Our liberal watched the left turn the Brett Kavanaugh hearings into a perversion of due process, he ignored the precedent it set, and now, he can’t decide how to manage the allegations against candidate Joe Biden. He deplores discrimination, but looks the other way when leftist hacks go through many years of a person’s Facebook and Twitter accounts in search of embarrassing material. (Liberals regard the wall of privacy as fundamental; leftists breach it all the time.) He favors same-sex marriage, but denies that Obergefell v. Hodges might be used as a bazooka against conservative Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

What will he do in the future, though, as the left pushes illiberal practices ever harder?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) isn’t going to stop, no matter how uncomfortable she makes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Progressives recruited liberals to the same-sex marriage movement, and many libs assumed that once the Supreme Court ruled their way the sexual debates would settle down. They never saw the trans-issue coming. Several liberal historians have objected to The 1619 Project as bad history, but the main adviser to the project just won the Pulitzer Prize.

The progressive ball keeps rolling. Nevertheless, liberals haven’t stopped thinking that as progressives win one battle after another, progressives will slow down. They won’t. The gap is widening.

How long can liberal bad faith hold up? As the left gets more aggressive, the energy required to sustain bad faith goes up and up. Does it rest upon a shared abhorrence of President Donald Trump? Is that what holds left and liberal together? Maybe it’s the left’s brand of fusionism, in which case, when the common enemy departs the fission will commence.

At a small dinner awhile back, someone said, “Let’s stop fighting—give the left all it wants—let them loose … and then watch them make a mess of everything and turn on one another.” I believe that once Trump is gone, the left will triumph over and over, yes, but the cannibalism my friend envisions is exaggerated.

Still, the position of liberals in the civic sphere will change, and bad faith will not serve them well. Even in milder forms of ideological conflict, once conservatives are out of the theater, the time for self-deception will be over.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory College. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.