Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto whose latest book is On Risk.
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie recently wrote a pointed article called “I’m Not Actually Interested in Mitch McConnell’s Hypocrisy.” Mr. Bouie’s argument wasn’t that Mr. McConnell is not a hypocrite – he certainly is, and spectacularly so – but rather that hypocrisy is the least of his crimes. He has dismantled U.S. Senate conventions and blown with the prevailing wind of Trumpism when it suited him, then switching tack, created actual harms. Among other sins, Mr. McConnell’s possible collusion with Russian interests and home-state pork-barrelling, not his moral prevaricating, are the real issues.
We’re all hypocrites sometimes. We do not do as we say. I had a family doctor who smoked cigarettes, even though the dangers of both smoking and second-hand smoke were well documented. He was nevertheless a very good physician who helped me through some difficult times. It is despicable that some Canadian politicians flew to sunny climes over the Christmas holidays, when the rest of us were hunkered down at home, not even daring to hug our children. But I don’t think that alone disqualifies them from public office – though probably it bars them forever from our respect.
Democratic life is full of hypocrisy. It’s the tainted but necessary lifeblood of compromise and negotiation. The late political theorist Judith Shklar argued in her book Ordinary Vices that hypocrisy was the easiest, and thus the flimsiest, charge against fellow citizens. A recent CBC forum noted that her work, neglected for some time, is enjoying a current vogue. Prof. Shklar thought we should focus instead on cruelty, deliberate deception and structural perversion. These are the vices that actually undermine democracy, and debase its values.
This may sound counterintuitive. Aren’t hypocrites terrible? Sure, but consider that the welcome departure of the recent U.S. president did not turn on charges of hypocrisy. Donald Trump mostly said exactly what he believed, however unhinged, and usually followed through on those beliefs when his lackeys and sycophants co-operated. He is a sociopath and narcissist of massive scale. His roster of lies and evasions is legendary. And yet, the list of performative contradictions is slight. A charlatan is not self-deceived; he is a deceiver.
If there is no credit in mere consistency, there is likewise no traction in dodging the charge of inconsistency. Every athlete or politician or celebrity who has been forced to make a public apology for some discreditable behaviour uses the now-familiar escape hatch. “That’s not who I am. Those are not my values.” But your actions define your character, as Aristotle insisted. That is who you are. Those are your values. The harms are what matter.
Prof. Shklar’s point was not to dismiss hypocrisy but to put it in proper focus. Ideally, though rarely, a perceived gap between professed standards and observable action will sound a warning bell to the individual. This might then modify future actions. But self-justification is one of our higher human skills, which is why hypocrisy accusations often lack force and rational argument fails to change minds. Most of us know intelligent people who, right now, are finding reasons for violating lockdown rules or public-health measures. They don’t think they’re conflicted.
Worse, the accusation of hypocrisy is usually made gleefully, as a self-satisfied counterpunch, the way some people pounce on grammatical infelicities or factual errors. A friend of mine calls the latter sport “fact-shaming.” This is all symptomatic of Nietzsche’s analysis of herd morality. Such false high-ground pouncing used to be called the tu quoque fallacy; nowadays we call it “whataboutism.” Gotcha!
The sad truth is that hypocrisy charges rest in the eye of the beholder. Unless and until someone looks themselves in the mirror and sees an ethical contradiction, the accusation is more satisfying to the accuser than to the target.
Hypocrisy is the easy accusation that can then become a distraction. Spotting apparent contradictions is all too easy in a world where video clips from years apart can be juxtaposed in seconds. Sometimes people legitimately change their minds, or make aspirational claims about what they believe should be true even when they themselves can’t always live up to it. The real issue is lack of character, lack of courage and lack of honour. How do you sleep at night? Can you take responsibility?
Many people are enraged that the current debate about Mr. Trump’s impeachment has been sidelined by the diversionary tactic of citing Constitutional nuance, or counterattacking about the November election results. We all know that these moves are deliberately meant to evade responsibility for the insurrectionary riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and create a late-exit malfeasance loophole. That is inexcusable, as even some Republicans have acknowledged. And we also all know they would vote differently if the accused were a Democratic ex-president, or anyone except Mr. Trump.
Hypocrisy is certainly a vice, but it is not the most important one. Lack of character is worthy of contempt, but alas is not a crime. Advocating insurrection, conspiracy, storming a public building, threatening death, destroying property, subverting justice – now those are crimes. They should be prosecuted as such.
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