Saturday, September 06, 2008

It's hypocrisy all the way down

So says a wonderfully titled post on Prawfsblog by Matt Brodie. The point is that much of our political discouse is given over to charges of hypocrisy. We wrap ourselves into knots to be able to say that those we don't agree with have been inconsistent. Anyone who even casually follows political blogs has read the hackneyed "pot, meet kettle" so often as to wish to never see or hear it ever again.

Why do we do this? My own view flows from two observations. The first is that our society has altered the former balance between the perceived value of personal authenticity in the sense of following your own lights and the virtue of conforming to a set of standards that originates outside yourself. We have moved toward a greater appreciation of the former. This is not to argue that we have given ourselves over to a radical moral relativism, only that our discourse had shifted in a way that charges of hypocrisy have a particular salience.

This isn't all bad. Intellectual consistency is a virtue and an important discipline.

But our concern here is its emergence as a preferred form of political attack. I want to evaluate the implications of the observation that it's "hypocrisy all the way down." Is there anything about that which is troubling?

I think so. My sense is that charges of hypocrisy are popular because they do not require us to talk with one another about the real reasons for our disagreement. It is the invocation of a widely shared norm by those who have no intention of honestly debating what divides us. Rather than discuss the substantive differences between the tickets of Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin, we search for "gotchas" - things that allow us to dismiss our opponents without ever engaging what they have to say. It's a form of discourse for those who have no intention of engaging.

Other preferred political tactics offer the same opportunity including the closely related horror of "flip flopping" and our passion for scandal. Changing your mind in the face of the facts can be the sign of a good leader. It's probably a topic for another post, but don't we seem to struggle with the fact that good leaders may have human imperfections?

Cross posted at Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.


T.F. said...

I agree with one exception:

The charge of hypocrisy is essential when it exposes a lack of genuineness in professed positions. It's a way of cutting through the discourse of those whose rhetoric is a charade designed to secure financial benefit or political power rather than to articulate genuine political arguments. (A pitch-perfect example of such an essential charge is here.)

Michael said...

Even a three-year-old knows there's something not quite right when mommy says, "do as I say, not as I do."

That's the real root of our obsession with hypocrisy.

David Casper said...

Rick...this is a great post. And I can't wait for someone to go through all your archives looking for instances where you may have accused someone of being hypocritical yourself!

Anonymous said...

Political discourse has become so very poisonous. Most of the time there is, as you say, "no intention of honestly debating what divides us", only the intention of smearing the other. Even more destructive than charging hypocrisy is the ascribing of (evil) motives to the other. If a candidate believes business taxes should be lowered, we are told they favor lower taxes because they are on the take from business interests. When a candidate favors reduced class size, the opposition says they do it only in exchange for the support of the teachers' union.

I've known many a politician and find them to be good people who advocate for what they believe in. The politician who wants reduced class size or lower business taxes really believes those changes will make a positive difference. But, instead of debating the merits of class size or tax rates, we are told their motives are evil.

When I hear someone in the political arena start ascribing motives to the other side, I stop listening because no debate of issues is forthcoming. Unfortunately, I'm not doing much listening anymore.

Anonymous said...

Someone should bring your post to the attention of "Chuckles the Clown" Sykes. He has spent the past several months blasting everything Barack Obama has said and done. If Obama announced that the sun will rise tomorrow in the east and set in the west, Sykes would find some fatal flaw in the pronouncement, and a way to use the statement to show that Obama is a flawed and evil individual.

The Daily Show link which jim c. included well illustrates the point. Karl Rove itemizes exactly why the 20-month Alaska Governor and former mayor of a 9,000-person town is supremely qualified while the 36-month Virginia Governor who served as Mayor of Richmond (105th largest) is completely unqualified.

Sykes and Rove are examples of cosmic hypocrites. A pox on both their houses.

capper said...

Sorry, Rick, but in 2004, all we heard were the phrases "hypocrite" and "flip-flopper." Now, that there is overwhelming evidence of McCain's and Palin's hypocrisy, it shouldn't be minimalized.

Else, that in itself would be ironic and hyporcritical.

krshorewood said...

It's no the hypocrisy that's bad. It's claiming you do one thing to fool people and then doing another.

In other words making people think they will get something (reform, no earmarks, taxes cut, no deficits) when you will be doing something else and your history proves.

Anonymous said...

hypocrisy......the catholic church's view on homosexality and clergy abuse

Terrence Berres said...

...all the way down to Leon Wieseltier coming out Against Integrity.