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Mira Sucharov


By Mira Sucharov, May 26, 2010

I dislike hypocrisy as much as the next person. But I think society is developing an unhealthy preoccupation with it, such that it is beginning to obscure reasoned debate.

This hypocrisy obsession creeps up in discussion of topics across the spectrum. Here's David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, writing in the Huffington Post a few months ago. "When Israel takes action to defend itself, pro-Palestinian forces around the world are ready to mobilize at a moment's notice with emergency sessions, self-righteous indignation, heated resolutions, angry protests, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, and over-the-top ads. Yet, these very same forces are AWOL if Israel is not involved." He continues, "If this isn't a case of rank hypocrisy and transparent double standards, then what is?"

Or William Saletan writing in Slate about stem-cell research in 2005, during the second term of George W. Bush's presidency: "Before Bush vetoes the stem-cell bill, maybe he should explain how his comments about stem cells...square with his comments about capital punishment...."

Or John R. Lott, Jr., critiquing Obama’s health care bill on Fox News online, in March: “Obviously, the Democratic leadership knew full well that the bill they passed on Sunday with such fanfare is going to make things worse for the vast majority of those who are already insured. There is no other reason why the staff that wrote this bill would exempt themselves. The anger over the Democrats’ hypocrisy should be deafening.”

These examples tell us a little about Harris, Saletan and Lott. They also may tell us something about the record of human rights NGOs, the moral psychology of George W. Bush, and the operations of the Democratic party. But these cries of j’accuse tell us nothing about the justness and morality of Israeli human rights policy, stem cell research or health care reform.

If we put a hypocrisy-detector moratorium on such conversations, where would such conversations lead?

For one thing, writers and commentators would be forced to deal with an issue on its merits. Stem cell research: right or wrong, and why? What is at stake for whom? Health care reform: whether, when, and how? Who benefits and who loses? What obligation do governments have to protect the most vulnerable? Human rights practices: appropriate or abysmal? What are the broad standards to which countries should be held? Is there any room for deviation from these standards based on security considerations? If so, can most observers agree on these, or is security an altogether contested notion?

Writers and speakers would also be encouraged to be explicit about their philosophical assumptions. Moral absolutism or consequentialism? Kant or Mill? Going back to moral foundations can help us logically trace an argument to the everyday realm of practice. Do you believe something is intrinsically wrong, no matter its application? Or does the combined impact of an action on ourselves and others determine its ethical status?

The marketplace of ideas would be immensely enriched if we spent more time talking about principles than about personalities. Trying to discredit your political opponents by pointing out ethical inconsistencies in their array of policy positions is simply a form of rhetorical distraction. That kind of reasoning leaves me, for one, philosophically and intellectually cold.

The charge of hypocrisy is not always motivated by polemical point scoring. Sometimes it’s a legitimate emotional reaction to being let down by our elected leaders. I’m thinking of Americans’ experience of the fall from grace of John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, for instance. When those in whom we place our trust act ignobly, we are understandably disappointed. But whatever policies these leaders are in the business of promoting or opposing still have a moral logic of their own, whether or not their proponents or detractors are themselves morally upright when they leave the office for the day.

Ditto our religious leaders. Surely we must have some independent opinion about the merits or shortcomings of romantic fidelity, for instance, regardless of where the person preaching it spent the night. Yes, hypocrisy is maddening. But aren’t the integrity of the principles underlying the messages much more important than our opinion of the messenger? With all the shock talk and partisan pandering dominating the airwaves, perhaps we’re doing too much tuning in circa 2010 and not enough turning on, tuning in and dropping out circa Timothy Leary’s 1960s (minus the hallucinogens, maybe). My prescription? Grab a hit of the philosophical classics paired with the latest sermon around town and get in touch with your inner Solomon. Let’s debate, sure. But let’s try to convince each other of the rightness of our cause based on sound logical and ethical reasoning. And, hard as it may be, let’s try leaving the subject of hypocrisy for a separate conversation.

Former Winnipegger Mira Sucharov is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University.

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