The Harvey Weinstein revelations have provided political operatives with a golden opportunity to do their absolute favorite thing in the whole wide world: accuse other people of hypocrisy. Accusations of hypocrisy are basically the coin of the realm in political discussions, so this isn’t exactly unexpected behavior. Given how impoverished such discussions almost always are, though, it’s worth considering whether the concept possesses any real value.
The idea behind hypocrisy is that identifying a contradiction between a person’s stated beliefs and evident actions demonstrates that the person does not actually believe what they say they believe. This is already a problem, because it means that the best we can get out of the concept is a one-time, surface-level, circumstantial criticism of a single person. It doesn’t penetrate through to the part that matters. In the classic example of the anti-gay crusader who secretly fucks men, one might presume that the recognition that gay behavior is naturally occurring would serve as an argument against the underlying ideology. But of course this never happens; the underlying ideology is not simply “gay sex is bad,” but is rather adherence to the entire patriarchal world order. If you believe that patriarchy is the correct way for the world to be, then the particular causes and details and distributions of gay behavior are of only instrumental importance. This is where “ex-gay” therapy comes from: the belief that, despite the state of the underlying reality, something must be done. This is the kind of response that hypocrisy actually generates, because hypocrisy does not target ideology.
It is inherent to the concept that hypocrisy is always an argument against a person and not against an idea. This is true at the most general level. Patriarchy supposedly requires exacting standards of behavior on the part of men. They’re supposed to be the moral, honorable law-givers; that’s why patriarchy is allegedly justified. But whenever a man sticks his dick somewhere he’s not supposed to, it always ends up being framed as some woman’s fault. The ideology endures the failures of its adherents.
Hypocrisy is different from incoherence. Hypocrisy is when an action you take conflicts with your stated values. Incoherence is when your stated values conflict with themselves. For example, if you complain about the Republicans obstructing Obama throughout his tenure and claim that they should have tried to compromise, but you also complain about people who try to compromise with Trump and claim that they should obstruct him instead, you’re being incoherent (assuming you actually believe that and aren’t just being tactically cynical). The problem with incoherence is that it’s impossible for anyone to take your advice, because you’re advocating two different incompatible courses of action in the same situation. When you state incoherent values, you’re actually saying nothing. Thus, pointing this out to people has, potentially, the useful effect of forcing them to pick a real side.
Still, it would seem that hypocrisy retains the limited value of arguing against certain in-the-moment courses of action. You should be able to use it to either get a sincere person to change their behavior to be more in line with their beliefs, or to expose a cynical professor of righteous-sounding beliefs as a fraud. In practice, though, its signal-to-noise ratio is pretty shit, and there’s probably an explanation for that.
The reason hypocrisy doesn’t help to change people’s behavior is that everyone is already trying to act out their values. That’s what having values means: they’re the things that you’re trying to do. If someone’s doing something that goes against their values, it’s because they don’t realize that it’s doing that. So what’s required here is a material explanation of how the relevant behavior counterindicates the relevant values. For example, if someone claims to be a feminist, but complains about women who act “slutty,” it’s probably because they’ve internalized ideas about women’s sexuality being a source of weakness and frivolousness. In other words, they think they’re helping, because they think women need to be less sexual in order for feminism to succeed. The truth, of course, is that the problem is not the particular types of sexual behavior that women engage in, but rather the idea that there is a “correct” type of behavior at all. Substituting one mandate for another continues to oppress women. While some behaviors are in fact immoral (anything that doesn’t involve consent, obviously; also particular behaviors are potentially open to aesthetic rather than moral criticism, but that’s a whole other topic), the mandating of specific behaviors for certain classes of people rather than the development of a general moral theory is in fact what oppression is. Calling the person a hypocrite, though, doesn’t clarify any of this for them. You have to give them a real explanation.
As for discreditization, that doesn’t have a great track record either. I’m getting pretty sick of the tendency to turn every political issue into a referendum on Donald Trump, but unfortunately that’s the move here, because Trump is the biggest possible hypocrite. As you may have read on the internet somewhere, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt draws a technical distinction between lies and bullshit. The liar is someone who wants to convince you that a particular fact is not in fact a fact. A criminal trying to create an alibi wants you to believe that they were in a certain place at a certain time, even though they weren’t; establishing that belief in contradiction to the facts is their goal. The bullshitter, however, doesn’t care about the truth or falsity of the relevant facts in the first place; their goal is to use the appearance of facts to establish something else entirely. Our primary vector for bullshit is advertising. An ad will make a claim like “American Moms’ #1 Choice” or something, which looks like a fact-based statement. Presumably there was some sort of survey of American moms and most of them chose the product in question. And the company may in fact have conducted such a survey and gotten such results, if only for the sake of legal plausibility, but conveying that factual information isn’t the point. The point is simply to associate the product with positive-valence terms such as “America” and “Mom” and “#1” and “Choice.” In other words, bullshit may very well be true, but it doesn’t matter, because the intent of the statement is something else entirely.
So, Trump, who only understands the world in terms of marketing, will say whatever gets a positive response at the time, and will take whatever action seems like it will inflate his brand. Because of this, and because he has no other motivations, his stated beliefs and actions are entirely disconnected; he is a perfect hypocrite. The times when his actions and beliefs do align are mere coincidences; some of his beliefs may in fact be “true,” but they’re bullshit either way, because he doesn’t believe them as facts, but rather as instrumental vectors for self-promotion. He never actually encountered evidence that his inauguration had the biggest crowd ever, that was just the thing he had to say in order to make himself seem more impressive (the fact that it had the opposite effect was lost on him, because, in addition to being full of shit, he’s not very bright). Even if he really had had the biggest crowd, he still would have been bullshitting.
Now, some people have recognized this dynamic and been confused by it, because it seems to sort people into one of two camps. Either you’re opposed to Trump’s stated beliefs, in which case you oppose him, or you’re in favor of his stated beliefs, in which case you should be opposed to his actions, because he’s a hypocrite and is therefore betraying your beliefs, meaning you should oppose him. Thus, his thoroughgoing hypocrisy should prevent him from having any base at all. But the opposite is the case: Trump has an extremely strong base of support that is pretty much guaranteed to stick with him to the particularly bitter end. So this already completely discredits the concept of hypocrisy on an empirical level, because if it doesn’t work in the most glaringly obvious case, it’s clearly never going to work at all.
We can still figure out why this is, though. In the case of political support, stated beliefs are what matter. The government is big and complicated, so you can never assign simple blame for any particular failure. During Obama’s term, liberals made excuses for everything he failed to do or did wrong, and conservatives are doing the same for Trump right now. This is actually reasonable behavior. The president’s actual function is mostly “setting the agenda,” and given the limited number of options, the only thing you can really do is support the person who’s mostly somewhere in the vicinity of what you’re after. Conservatives understand this perfectly well. As much as they like to grandstand about decorum and shit, they know that Trump’s their boy. He’s the one who’s going to give them their judges and agency appointments. As long as it benefits them, they’re going to keep supporting him until it becomes politically untenable. Among ordinary voters, it’s the same thing: Trump is the only person even pretending to speak to their concerns, and he actually is sort of moving the general political agenda in their direction, and since that’s all they’re going to get, they’re going to take it. This is hypocritical, but it’s also just a basic utilitarian calculation, which is the only sensible way to approach electoral politics. (Of course, this is also why electoral politics are not worth spending much time on.)
What’s actually wrong with both Obama and Trump is not the fact that they’re hypocrites, it’s the fact that they’re liars. Obama ran as an anti-war candidate knowing full well that he was never going to oppose imperialism or indeed do anything at all about foreign policy other than formalize and normalize everything that he made it seem like he was criticizing Bush for. He played the role of racial redeemer without ever intending to do anything to help black people. He presented himself as a populist in public while specifically telling bankers that he was going to protect them from the people they fucked over. These are not instances of hypocrisy, they are instances of immoral belief. Calling these things “hypocrisy” lets Obama off the hook; it implies that nothing was really his fault, like he was just trying his best and if only he had more power and the opposition wasn’t so mean he could have fixed everything. What actually went wrong with Obama’s presidency was the fact that he holds beliefs that are actively harmful to humanity.
Trump is a somewhat different case; as mentioned, his claims don’t generally rise to the point of qualifying as “lies.” But there is one exception: the claim that he ever intended to act as a public servant at all. This was actually at the core of his campaign: he stated many times that he used to be a freewheeling capitalist, but now he was going to buckle down and serve the people. This, augmented of course by his unwavering allegiance to whiteness and masculinity, was the key to establishing in many people the perception that Trump was “on their side” and “the only one looking out for people like me.” Calling Trump a “hypocrite” does not attack this perception. It reinforces it; it makes it sound like Trump is trying his best but being stifled, which is exactly the excuse that his supporters are currently making for him. Undoing this perception requires targeting not his stumbles and gaffes, but the true center of his image: the fact that he’s a rich fuck. This is the relevant quality that ensures that he is never going to help anyone other than himself, but this cannot be seen by those operating under the notion that rich people are the “winners” of society, the ones who are the smartest and the most qualified. Hypocrisy keeps the dividing line in the same place, but attempts to position Trump on the wrong side of it. This can’t work, due to the simple fact that Trump really is a rich fuck; he really is a representative of the upper class, even if they’re all embarrassed by him. Turning people away from Trump requires redrawing the line where it really belongs. It requires, yes, class consciousness.
To address the specific recent issue, liberals are being accused of hypocrisy for acting all aghast about sexual assault while harboring people like Weinstein and Bill Clinton on their midst. It’s true that liberals are in the wrong here: they’re wrong to harbor predators, and they don’t actually care about sexual assault like they say they do. But neither of these things is an example of hypocrisy. What’s actually happening is that establishment liberals a) don’t really want to end patriarchy and b) care more about schmoozing and power-grubbing than changing society in any case. It’s not that there’s a contradiction between their beliefs and actions, it’s that their beliefs and actions are both morally wrong on their own terms. This line of analysis applies to basically any possible accusation of hypocrisy: the problem is never the contradiction; it’s either that the beliefs are wrong or the actions are harmful, or both. Ignoring hypocrisy doesn’t mean that things are “okay,” it means the opposite. The things that are really wrong are the things that should really be argued against. If, hypothetically, someone who claimed to care about gay people were to pose with the people responsible for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, it would make sense to call them out on that. But the reason it makes sense is not because it’s hypocritical. It’s because whitewashing history prevents us from understanding why things are wrong and therefore from being able to do anything about it, because fetishization of trendy causes harms those causes, and because making nice with evil people normalizes evil.
There isn’t actually anything wrong with liberals taking Weinstein’s money. The whole rejecting-the-tainted-donation pageant is actually really fucking annoying. Money is fungible, you dumb fucks! That’s like the entire point of the concept. There’s no such thing as “blood money”; money doesn’t change based on where it comes from. The money doesn’t magically “corrupt” you due to some kind of phantom influence from its source. In fact, it’s more virtuous to take bad money than it is to take good money. Bad people are probably going to use their money to do bad things, so taking that money and using it to do good things is doubly virtuous.1 Contrariwise, all those people donating $27 to Sanders’ campaign probably needed that money.
There is, of course, a real problem with having rich patrons, but it has nothing to do with hypocrisy. The problem is that having rich patrons is bad regardless of what you believe. Republicans also have rich patrons, but even though they aren’t hypocrites about this, because they believe that wealth itself has moral force, their situation is still just as bad. It’s still causing bad things to happen. The real problem is that establishing long-term relationships with rich fucks and relying on them as sources of support naturally entails adopting their values as your own. When you start thinking of rich fucks as your “us,” the question of “what’s good for the country?” becomes “what’s good for us rich fucks?” You start to see the world through their eyes, and to frame all problems in their terms. Hillary Clinton’s “no quid pro quo” defense against bribery was actually accurate: quid pro quo is not how the influence of wealth works in the modern world. Clinton’s problem wasn’t the money, it was the fact that she really was “one of them.” Her problem was that she wasn’t a hypocrite. Besides, the correct solution here is publicly funded elections paid for by progressive taxation, in which case it would in fact be rich people paying for political campaigns.
The ironic thing about hypocrisy is that it’s slung about like a vicious accusation, but it actually gives the target the maximum possible benefit of the doubt. Calling someone a hypocrite assumes that they’re not a liar or a con artist; it assumes that their beliefs are true and they’re making an honest attempt to live up to them, but that they just happen to be failing. Hypocrisy is always the weakest possible accusation you can make; there is always a better argument. Hypocrisy is like accusing a person of accidentally stubbing their toe, when the real problem is that they’re busy stabbing someone.
But it’s actually quite a bit worse than that, because there’s a real, vile reason why accusations of hypocrisy are the most common form of political discourse. They’re ubiquitous because they’re counterproductive. Conservatives obviously can’t argue against liberal sexism by being anti-sexist, because conservatives are also sexist. So, instead, they use accusations of hypocrisy to attack their enemies without actually engaging in any sort of discussion about ideas or behaviors. The goal is not to actually discuss sexual assault; in fact, it is to avoid discussing sexual assault in any real way. It is simply to take advantage of the opportunity to discredit one’s enemies while ignoring the real issue altogether. In other words, it’s bullshit. It pretends to be a political discussion, when it’s really nothing more than tribalistic sniping and noise-generation.
For us ordinary citizens, the problem is even worse. As people without power, we have no options other than to engage with society as it exists. This means that we are all necessarily complicit in whatever evils we are trying to destroy, no matter what they are. You can’t be against capitalism or sexism or racism without also engaging in capitalist and sexist and racist practices, because the entire thing about these things is that they’re social systems. They’re not mistakes that happen here and there, but are rather how the world we live in is constituted. So if non-hypocrisy is the condition for action, no action is possible. The concept of hypocrisy does not help us to distinguish between better and worse actions, because all actions are fatally contaminated in its eyes. The way to argue for or against actions is on the basis of material results, which can actually be analyzed rather than merely yelled about. This is the truly important reason we must jettison the concept of hypocrisy entirely. It forces us into a morass of fruitless defensiveness and scares us away from the real actions we’re capable of taking. It smothers us in self-righteous snobbery and prevents us from making real, bold arguments – the kind that might actually change something. One of the few genuinely important, non-bullshit functions of talking about politics as ordinary citizens is to get people to take stronger stances. Debating the merits of this or that policy is completely irrelevant for most of us, since we have no control over which specific policies actually get implemented. What we do have a non-zero amount of control over are our values and priorities, and it’s important to get these right.
This point might seem too simple to be worth making, but it is in fact the case that people use this line of attack all the time, against everything. If you use social media to criticize social media, you’re a hypocrite. If you buy a shirt with an anti-capitalist slogan on it, you’re a hypocrite. If you’re an anarchist, anywhere, ever, you’re a hypocrite. Again, there is potentially a real argument that can be made about the likely effects of certain actions; if there’s a readily available alternative to a company that uses sweatshop labor, or an easy vegan substitute for a meat dish, it can be helpful to point those things out. But they still exist in context: all consumption supports the economy that relies on sweatshop labor, and all food is part of the production chain that tortures animals. This is the difference between sincere progressiveness and reactionary accusations of hypocrisy: one aims at the best that can be done in this world, the only place where things can happen, and one is simply a shouting-down of any possible action at all.
Also, global warming.2 We all believe that the planet should continue to exist, and we’re all engaged in the behavior that’s destroying it. We’re all hypocrites. Like, seriously, we suck, okay? It’s great if you’re all self-actualized or whatever, except it’s actually not, because the world’s still being destroyed, which means you actualized yourself wrong (or at least prematurely). Quit trying to act cool.
These are the truly pernicious “purity politics.” They are the ones that come from the amoral center, striking against any possible alternative to the world as it happens to exist at this particular moment. If the problem is hypocrisy, then the solution is to stop expressing political beliefs – or, more dishonestly, to claim “nuance” and accuse your opponents of being “purists.” Hypocrisy motivates people to change in the wrong direction: away from proclaiming their values openly and honestly, and towards the most tepid and inoffensive actions. We want people to feel comfortable stating their beliefs as strongly as possible, because that’s the only way we can have a real conversation, and we want people to act like they mean it, because that’s the only way anything is ever going to change.
There is, then, a necessary solution, which is to be a hypocrite. You should say what you really believe and value, rather than saying that thing that makes you sound the most “reasonable.” You should then try to figure out what actions will be the most effective at advancing those beliefs, rather than which actions will expose you to the least criticism. Given the current state of the world, doing this will cause various people to hate you for various reasons, and it will leave you open to accusations of hypocrisy. The correct response is to not care. If someone has a real argument against you, that’s great, you should listen to them, but if it really is a real argument, hypocrisy won’t enter into it. In a world of ersatz rationality, where human potential is locked down by false certainty, the recklessness of hypocrisy is our best weapon against the worst future. The only worthwhile political stance is to be a first-world anarchist.
(It’s also a useful defense against taking yourself too seriously.)
Besides, it’s obvious that none of the people making accusations of hypocrisy care when the same accusations are leveled at them. If you don’t think accusations of hypocrisy are significant when they’re directed at you, then accusing others of hypocrisy as though such claims were significant is itself hypocritical. That’s not why it’s wrong, though. It’s wrong because it’s useless either way.