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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Hypocrisy All the Way Down

In all the political back and forth of the last few days, I've noticed a pronounced tendency of the blogosphere to focus on hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy is the biggest sin.  Although there are all sorts of interesting facts flying around out there, the substantive debate on these issues is thinner than it appears.  Instead, most of the debate is about who is a hypocrite.  The move is to show that your opponents have said two different things, in two different contexts, that are inconsistent -- that cannot both be true.  Thus, your opponent must be lying about one of those statements, proving hypocrisy and perhaps even deception.

One example is the issue of Sarah Palin's experience.  Although there is some substantive discussion about her credentials, the conversation is evolving into whether McCain should have chosen her based on those credentials.  As Michael Kinsley wrote over at Slate:

That's why the important point about Palin's lack of experience isn't about Palin. It's about McCain. And the question is not how his choice of Palin might complicate his ability to use the "experience" issue, or whether he will have to drop experience as an issue. It's not even about the proper role of experience as an issue. In fact, it's not about experience at all. It's about honesty. The question should be whether McCain—and all the other Republicans who have been going on for months about Obama's dangerous lack of foreign-policy experience—ever meant a word of it. And the answer is apparently not.

Of course, the Republican response is to charge Democrats with hypocrisy.  If Democrats are so upset with Palin's credentials, how could they support the inexperienced Obama?  It is the Democrats, Republicans argue, that are being hypocritical here.

The Palin family values debate is similarly fraught with arguments of hypocrisy.  There is a vague substantive charge that Palin's role as the mother of an infant is in some way relevant to her campaign for VP.  However, very little is actually said about this substantive issue.  Instead, Palin supporters charge hypocrisy -- no Democrat would bring up this issue if it were a Democratic man or woman.  Palin opponents, for their part, counter-charge with hypocrisy -- Republicans, they say, are ignoring their family values because Palin is on their team.  And so it goes with every issue -- like some sort of Escher drawing.  You're a hypocrite!  No -- you're a hypocrite for calling me a hypocrite!

Why all this focus on hypocrisy?  My thought is that hypocrisy is a charge that is (a) straightforward to prove and (b) applies almost universally across value systems.  So while we may disagree on the substantive issues, we can all agree that logical consistency is a good thing.  Conversely, a willingness to change positions in pursuit of political ends shows a lack of core principles.  There are no clear or logically-provable "winners" in substantive debates -- at least not in the short time-frame of the blogosphere.  But it's easy to use links to show that someone has contradicted themselves and therefore shouldn't be trusted.

I worry that all this focus  on hypocrisy is distracting us from a more reasoned, extensive discussion of the substantive issues.  At times, it seems like scoring debate points is more important than moving forward toward consensus on complicated issues.  Is this a blogospheric phenomenon, or is it endemic to political debate?

Posted by Matt Bodie on September 3, 2008 at 04:37 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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Comments

I agree, and I think consistency itself is overrated when it comes to these sorts of matters (provided that the inconsistency is not baldly craven). It's like trying to score a meta-point -- a procedural point of order. The same sort of irritating phenomenon rears its head when candidates are accused of 'flip-flopping'...again, provided the motive is not transparently base, why isn't modifying one's position, or even changing one's mind, praiseworthy and to be recognized as the mark of an open mind?

Pointing out a failure in consistency is a last ditch effort to achieve something like public consensus, when one realizes that persuading one's opponent on the merits just ain't gonna happen. It's the thinnest kind of 'public reason.' The trouble is that we sometimes value inconsistency too...'the hobgoblin of little minds' and all that.

Posted by: anon | Sep 3, 2008 8:12:38 PM

I think hypocrisy bothers us because we very much want to believe that we are engaged in rational discourse and that the people we are engaged with are making good faith arguments in furtherance of that discourse. We want to believe, in other words, that when someone says “I win this argument because of X, Y and Z”, that the person making the argument actually believes that X, Y and Z are good arguments and that those same arguments therefore will be persuasive to that person when presented in a comparable context. Hypocrisy turns that on its head.

Posted by: Lori Ringhand | Sep 3, 2008 10:13:27 PM

I agree with the other commenters, and would just like to add one point. The more anger or scorn present in the rhetoric (on either side), the more a charge of hypocrisy seems both important and attractive. We're losing (if we haven't lost--or maybe we never had) the ability to publicly and civilly debate issues. And it seems to me that the right in particular has never been so angry or snide in its public discourse. There are plenty on the left who are as bad, but those people seem less ubiquitous. It's possible that my own political leanings are coloring my perception, but the failure of Air America Radio seems to support that the left is at least not as good at the angry snideness as the right is. This is one charge that both sides are equally good at making, and it creates at least the illusion of real debate because it is a neutral principle.

Posted by: Marcia McCormick | Sep 4, 2008 10:34:01 AM

this post proves why Palin is wholly lacking in the skills necessary for nomination (and why the poster is also likewise lacking in sufficient skills to be offering comments).

Conflict is a moral struggle, as well explained by Col. John Boyd. The purpose of a charge of hypocrisy is to not to pursuade but to strike at the moral structure of the speaker and his followers. Read Boyd's Patterns of Conflict for an introduction. Try page 40 of the powerpoint (psychological/moral forces and effects . . .) Also see Strategic Game of ? and ?, which throughout makes the point that one must constantly attack the moral structure of an opponent.

McCain full well understands that the Republican Party, today, lacks moral force. It is why he offers nothing except negative attacks.

If the Democrats are smart, they will hit Palin on the facts, for the purpose of showing her lack of morality. For example, she pledged to be a friend of the disabled, if VP. Does this mean she will support stem cell research, that might offer a cure? Why not? Does this mean that she will support further federal spending on other research or for programs for the care of the disabled? Does this extend to the elderly? What is the distinction she sees between the elderly and the disabled? I could go on and on and on.

She has a son in the Army at age 19. Why? Did he lack educational and employment opportunities? If he really wanted to serve, why didn't he go to college and enroll in an ROTC program?

Posted by: Moe Levine | Sep 4, 2008 12:04:40 PM

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