Wednesday, September 05, 2007

# Posted 9:22 AM by Patrick Porter  

HYPOCRISY OR DISTRACTION? There's been much talk lately, and over the past year, around the issue of hypocrisy in public life.

Recent talking points include John Edwards' expensive haircuts and lavish wealth, conservative Christian evangelists having gay sex with prostitutes, or environmentalist campaigners racking up their airmiles.

Everyone has their favourite example that suit their politics. Hawkish pundits who actively avoided military service, or rich people who crusade for the redistribution of everyone else's wealth.

But a number of objections can be made to the 'hypocrite' accusation. Here's just three:

One: we are all hypocrites more or less, so the charge is inevitably itself hypocritical (!).

Two: its a distraction from real issues, made in bad faith. Its easier to lampoon Al Gore's vast energy consumption and jet-setting lifestyle than talk about the painful issues of sustainable development and cutting global warming. Its more fun to ridicule Bill Kristol for his lack of military experience than deal with the serious argument over whether, when and how to leave Iraq, and what to do about states that threaten to wipe out Israel. And isn't John Edwards right to name poverty as an important but neglected issue, even if he himself propagates and enjoys a good measure of material inequality?

Three: the obsession with people living up to the standards they themselves set panders to the priorities of celebrity culture, where lifestyle and self-absorption comes before substance.

But the fact remains that if someone advocates a certain policy or agenda, particularly one which entails how individuals ought to behave, they do set themselves a standard which they will naturally be judged by. I think it was Gandhi who advised people to be part of the change they desire in the world (even though he said other things that were less enlightened, like advising non-resistance against Nazi Germany).

To be sure, we shouldn't become so fixated on the politics of personal choices that we forget the broader issue, or forget that almost everyone violates in some small way the principles they adopt. Nor should we treat hypocrisy as the very worst of offences.

But it remains annoying when people who live exorbitant lifestyles tell the rest of us to sharpen up our act, a reality that some public figures should try harder to observe.
(16) opinions -- Add your opinion

Patrick, I need to hear more about your basis for saying we are all hypocrites to some extent, unless you mean that good manners, discretion, self-restraint are hypocritical because they don't reveal all that we may think or feel. And I quibble with your claim that there is no substance in connecting personal conduct to conduct in public life (if I've correctly understood your "lifestyle ... before substance" dismissal of the connection). Ted Kennedy's active opposition to a windmill farm on the horizon of his Hyannis vista, and Larry Craig's vote against civil unions are both issues in which personal conduct contradicts public conduct. Since the public conduct of both men has an impact on the citizenry, this is a contraction of substance. How is it not hypocrisy to contradict in public what you do in private?

If you reread it, I actually agree with the notion that hypocrisy should be criticised. I was also suggesting that criticising hypocrisy should not become so obsessive that we lose sight of broader issues. We are in furious agreement on this one.

On the other point, we are most of us hypocrites because its difficult for most people to live up to the standards and principles they believe in, or to do so consistently. Most people who oppose the exploitation of third world labour unwittingly purchase products that such exploitation creates, etc etc. Hypocrisy is almost impossible to avoid.

Its just the flagrant, avoidable and gratuitous hypocrisy of some public figures that is the most tedious.

Aren't you defining "hypocrisy" downwards a bit here?
offers two: "lip service (an expression of agreement that is not supported by real conviction" and "insincerity by virtue of pretending to have qualities or beliefs that you do not really have". It sounds to me as if you (like Instapundit and many others, I believe) are taking the second of these and adjusting it to say something like "preaching what you do not practice," or even "failing to live up to your expressed ideals." Sure, that's universal -- if you have any ideals worthy of the name. But is it really a good idea to conflate this with the definitions of "hypocrisy" out there?

(I suspect that Kennedy would argue that there's a genuine conflict of ideals here, and that it's not clear that the aesthetic ideal should lose to the environmental; like very many sincere proponents of national-park funding, he may not see any problem with having the nation bear a cost whose direct visual/sensory benefit is mainly enjoyed by a few. Craig, assuming his guilt [as I do, at the moment], should merely say that he hasn't lived up to his ideals. I don't think much of either of them, but I don't know that either has pretended to believe something that they don't believe.)

Am I too gullible? Probably. But to me, this sounds a lot like the "Is America an Empire?" post...an argument over words rather than things. I didn't remark on it then because I think such things are intrinsically a waste of time, but I wanted to say something now because I'm afraid it may be becoming a habit, and that would be sad ( deplorable, distressing, lamentable, pitiful, sad, sorry (bad; unfortunate) "my finances were in a deplorable state"; "a lamentable decision"; "her clothes were in sad shape"; "a sorry state of affairs").

empires are things not words, and the 'preaching vs practice' debate is about behaviour.

in your case, people who scramble for dictionaries should worry about being preoccupied with words.

your attempt at humour was a bit laboured and wasn't that funny. but you tried.

delighted to join you in fury, and will try to keep up this bloging business. Tom's confidence in the principled senator from Massachusetts reminds me of a favorite line from Lawrence of Arabia, where Claude Raines chides O'Toole for what I take to be hypocrisy--or the hazard of its practice. I can't recall what cherished notion O'Toole has just voiced, but here's what Raines has to say about those of us who soothe ourselves with highblown talk (such as protecting marriage, and the environment), without walking the walk: "A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it."


Good quote.
I think Tom gets it right, Patrick is lowering the bar somewhat. Sure, Clinton cheated on his wife but he didn't run as the Moral Majority candidate. He also stuck with his wife, unlike Guliani, Thompson, McCain, Gingrich, ....

Republicans on the other hand have been running on the morality platform but evidently they haven't been living the morality platform.

And that's hypocrisy. People know it when they see whether or not there's a dictionary nearby.
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anon 12:49,

the point of the post was to discuss the issue preaching vs practice, and to ask whether public figures' private behaviour was as important as often made out.

Tom and you seem to think it should be about debating the actual definition of the word 'hypocrisy.' You can do that as much as you like, but that was not the issue raised by the post, and so your comments run the risk of being irrelevant.
Patrick, we are discussing preaching vs. practice.

Preaching is running. Rhetoric.
Practice is living. Action.

Correct me if I'm wrong but I think you agree that Republicans have been hypocritical on the morality issue. But what you seem to be saying in the post is that hypocrisy isn't such a big deal. And that's where we think you're lowering the bar because voters tend to disagree.

If someone is an environmentalist doctor but drives a Hummer, you might think of him as a bit of a hypocrite, but you might still trust him as a good doctor. But with someone like Craig, he showed astonishingly bad judgment, a faculty central to what we expect of a Senator.
"The reason any conservative's failing is always major news is that it allows liberals to engage in their very favorite taunt: Hypocrisy! Hypocrisy is the only sin that really inflames them. Inasmuch as liberals have no morals, they can sit back and criticize other people for failing to meet the standards that liberals simply renounce. It's an intriguing strategy. By openly admitting to being philanderers, draft dodgers, liars, weasels and cowards, liberals avoid ever being hypocrites."
-Ann Coulter
And no one would know hypocrisy quite like Ann Coulter knows hypocrisy.

"what you seem to be saying in the post is that hypocrisy isn't such a big deal."

not exactly. I'm saying it is important but not to the extent that it overwhelms discussion of broader issues. Environmentalism or poverty or other issues remain important even if some of the folk who bang on about those issues are guilty of double standards.

On the Craig issue, I think you'll find that the criticism of his conduct is not just that he lacked judgement. It is that he is guilty of hypocrisy itself.
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