In Defense of Hypocrisy

[This entry is something I originally posted on another (private) blog of mine, with a few minor edits. I was prompted to write it after recent incidents involving presidential candidate Barack Obama and popular website BoingBoing, both of whom have been mercilessly accused of hypocrisy in the recent past. The cases aren't really equivalent--I think Obama is actually more deserving of the epithet--but I did get sick of all the drama.]

Yes, that's right, I'm going to defend hypocrisy.

A lot of otherwise nonjudgmental people seem very quick to throw out this particular accusation. Nobody likes a hypocrite, but why? I think it's time to challenge some assumptions.

The first problem with calling people out on hypocrisy is that we're all hypocrites (for example: I have in the past and probably will in the future call people out for hypocrisy). Many of us have at least a few strong ideals that we will share with other people from time to time, but we're all of us imperfect, human: we don't always live up to our values, although we're very good at making excuses for ourselves when we fail.

There's been some social scientific research on hypocrisy, but I don't feel like looking it up and you probably don't feel like reading it. Suffice to say, from what I have perused, there's evidence (surprise, surprise!) that hypocrisy is quite common, for just about everyone. But we all know this, anyway, from experience, so I'll move on.

At this point you may object: "Sure, we're all hypocrites sometimes, but some are bigger than others. Nobody listens to me, but public figures can have a lot of influence on other people, and there's nothing worse than them telling others not to do things that they themselves do."

My response to this brings me to my second point. Sometimes it's okay to hold different people by different standards. (In fact, the very objection hypothetically posed presupposes that public figures be held to a different standard than private citizens.)

Take Al Gore as an example. He travels around the world a lot, doing his slideshow and so forth, to try to convince people of the enormity of human-caused global warming and to inspire them to take action against it. Since he doesn't have a magical zero-emissions jet, his carbon footprint is rather considerable.

Now let's pretend (counterfactually; in truth, Gore spends large amounts of money to offset his carbon footprint) that he ignored this fact and continued to do his slideshow all over the world. Has our hypothetical Gore lost all credibility because he's a hypocrite?

In a world of black-and-white morals (like Tennessee, perhaps), that might be the case. I don't know how many times I've heard arguments to this effect: "Don't trust Noam Chomsky; he hasn't given up all his positions to go live on an anarchosyndicalist commune!" But in the real world, sometimes you have to do things you don't approve of in order to accomplish things you value more. Gore has changed so many other people's behavior that his effect will be a net positive regardless of what he does.

Take another, less controversial example. Let's say that you really support candidate X or proposition Y and spend large amounts of effort, time, and money to convince people to vote for him/her/it. Voting day comes around, and you suffer a lapse of energy, deciding to stay home instead of going out to the polls. As it happens, the race is close (say 100 votes), but your desired outcome is achieved. (Elections are almost never decided by a single vote.) Would you be a hypocrite in this case? In a sense, yes, but you still achieved more good than if you had merely voted without campaigning. (In presidential elections, this is more excusable for people who don't live in swing states.)

In short, people's circumstances often differ. We live in an egalitarian-minded society, but few ethical rules can be applied uniformly without consideration for the situation. When the actions of a mass of people easily outweigh those of an individual, hypocrisy isn't all that bad (except to the extent that it does in fact undermine your credibility, reducing your potential impact).

Third, and finally, accusations of hypocrisy are often leveled as excuses for one's own questionable behavior. In logic, there is a seldom invoked fallacy called "tu quoque", which is just Latin for "you too", that applies to charges of hypocrisy. It's an instance of ad hominem, in which you attack the speaker rather than what s/he says. Wikipedia has a decent article on it, so let me copy their formulation. The following argument is invalid:

A makes criticism P.
A is guilty of P.
Therefore, P is dismissed.

I see this a ton on political blogs. "The Republicans are telling us not to use 527s to smear them? But what about the Swiftboat Vets, etc.? If they can do it, we certainly can too!" This is one reason the high road is seldom taken in politics.

But you can see how easily this can be used to rationalize a person's behavior. In the previous example, if dirty politics is wrong in one case, then it's still wrong for you to do it even if your opponent does it and at the same time says not to do it. It may make it easier on your conscience, but just because large numbers of people do something does not make it right. (Two wrongs don't make a right, as it is often said but seldom practiced. :-) )

In this case, in fact, the accusers are being doubly hypocritical. First, for trying to justify their use of practice Z, which they otherwise say is wrong, and second, for accusing another person of being a hypocrite while themselves being hypocritical ("meta-hypocrisy" you might call it).

Look what has happened here, though. In all the accusations back and forth of hypocrisy, the real moral issues at stake have been lost sight of. Instead of discussing the appropriateness of policy T, we end up discussing whether minor infraction U counts as a violation of principle V, thereby making actor W a hypocrite. While these kinds of social games may be fun (and increase TV ratings), they are totally counterproductive.

So the next time you feel the urge to accuse someone of hypocrisy, stop a moment and think if it really matters. (Just because everyone else likes to yell "hypocrite!"--including me, at least sometimes--doesn't make it right, after all.) If it's an issue that you care about, playing the hypocrisy game will be self-defeating. More likely than not it will serve as a distraction, leaving the undesirable status quo in place. Why not just focus on what's objectionable about the policy position, behavior, or whatever, that's in question?


Tech said...

Honestly, I think I feel most bothered by the degree to which the American public hates "flip-flopping." It seems like most people have this sort of vitriolic response to politicians changing their mind. This applies to followers (and apparently candidates) of both parties.

Politicians shy away from stating they changed their mind for rational reasons, leading most of them to lie or rationalize it. It feels like an insult to the intelligence of the average Americans that they feel the need to do so rather than just tell us they have rethought things through.

I mean, look at the New Voters Project Presidential Youth Debate back in 2004, when a Washington resident asked the candidates when it was appropriate for a leader to change his opinion, and asked each candidate to give an example of a time when thoughtful reconsideration had lead to an honest change of opinion on a topic of national importance to the candidate. Every candidate invited failed to provide an example, and Bush even declined to answer the question (at a youth debate).

It seems like people take a candidate's position from 1990, and a new position from 2006, put them next to each other, and then claim hypocrisy if they detect any inconsistencies. I'm more convinced now that candidates almost never merit charges of, and that any such "examples" really just reflect on new considerations a candidate has (e.g. Clinton on the war, McCain on the Bush tax cuts, Obama on public financing).

We have a model that too readily assumes that politicians have to stick to their guns, otherwise we won't know what to expect from them in the coming four years. I can't help but shake the feeling that the majority of the public decides on a candidate based on these promises rather than on their cognitive capacities and philosophical rationale.

- Techgno

specter_of_spinoza said...

I couldn't agree with you more about the idiocy of calling every change of mind "flip-flopping".

Fortunately, however, I think the tendency to do this is more properly attributed to the chattering classes (pundits and TV journalists) than it is to ordinary Americans. For instance, take a look at this recent post on the excellent 538 blog: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2008/07/flip-flopping-as-american-as-apple-pie.html

According to a recent CNN poll, about 60% of voters each think that McCain or Obama have changed their minds "for political reasons". (This is remarkably surprising for McCain, because the media narrative does not suggest something like that at all. It gives you hope that very few people actually listen to the Beltway Insider Conventional Wisdom that gets spewed constantly on TV.)

But, despite that figure, both candidates are viewed favorably. Nate argues that the case of Bush is a special one, and that the "flip-flopper" label is only damaging to certain people who look like they stand for nothing (in addition to the obvious example of Kerry, he mentions Mitt Romney).

That said, however, I think the way that US voters decide who to vote for, especially in presidential elections, is highly superficial. For many people, I think it's just a big popularity contest, and the MSM can have a lot of influence on how likable a candidate seems.

People sometimes use the language of "character" as a way to justify this. I've been thinking about writing a post on that topic. I agree that a good leader is someone who exhibits certain positive character traits like good judgment, adherence to (some) principles, intellectual curiosity, and so forth. But I honestly don't think there's a good way of gauging candidates' characters today.

A lot of people thought (and some amazingly still think!) that Bush was a decent human being with good values, and voted for him for that reason. I think in 2000, the media helped him foster that image, and even now they help to support a version of it. (Bush may be stupid, but he's still a principled person, they seem to suggest.) The fact of the matter is, though, that Bush and his administration are literally a bunch of crooks, who can act with impunity only because they have a lot of powerful friends.

In short, while character is important, it's almost impossible to judge accurately in the span of a campaign, and sometimes even during a term in office. Presidential candidates market themselves as though they were laundry detergents, so I think we need to be really skeptical about the kinds of people their campaigns (and the media) claim them to be. The best way to judge something like that is probably by combing through their records in public service, and that's not easy to do in an objective manner without a lot of work.

james said...

I do not believe he walked on water, nor do I assert that he rose from the dead. No one does those things.

But Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be quite the social psychologist when he admonished his listeners to pay attention to the "log" in their own eye before pointing out the "speck of sawdust" in the eye of their neighbor.

For the peasantry in first-century Palestine, the aphorism is phrased elegantly, down-to-earth and relevant.

Another sage named Socrates urged human beings to "know thyself."
Perhaps by recognizing our shadow side of accusation and self-righteousness we can develop what some Buddhists call "the watcher."
We are not our minds, but we are "the watcher" of our minds, part of the pure state of being.
Realizing the hypocrisy of human life msy be a more healthy and compassionate stance than merely being trapped in that same hypocrisy.