Tuesday, March 29, 2005


On hypocrisy

At various points during the last week, I have felt my sympathies pulled towards every party involved in the Terri Schiavo case, which makes this story a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense: who do you feel most sorry for in Hamlet? Ophelia? Polonious? Gertrude? Hamlet? You can even feel sorry for the bad guy, Claudius, after his "words without thoughts" prayer. Even false piety has pathos, as anyone who has tried to be pious knows.

At various points during the week, I've also felt myself alternately delighted and disillusioned by the blogosphere. One of the entries in my Moleskine was Jeffrey Stout's observation that "the democratic practice of giving and asking for ethical reasons ... is where the life of democracy principally resides." While reading many blog posts on this issue -- too many to catalog exhaustively now -- I have been heartened by this exchange of reasons. Some of the most thoughtful posts I've seen, in no particular order and from a variety of angles, are at Positive Liberty, In Medias Res, Frogs and Ravens, Freespace, Easily Distracted, Gower Street, Michael Bérubé, Cliopatria, and The Weblog. The case has also sparked an interesting debate about "personhood" between Brandon at Siris and Chris at Mixing Memory. I would point to these posts (and others) as examples of the best thing the blogosphere can offer us: a democratic space in which to give and ask for ethical reasons.

But if the life of democracy consists in giving and asking for reasons, the Terri Schiavo case has also highlighted the ways in which this life is jeopardized. There are two principal threats to the life of democratic conversation. The first occurs when interlocutors refuse to give reasons, either by accepting no questions or by begging the questions being asked. The second occurs when interlocutors do not ask for reasons, but instead assume they already know the reasons that their opponents would offer. Whenever either of these wrenches is thrown into the gears of democracy, the ramifications quickly spread and become systemic.

Observe. Person A asks Person B if someone in a persistent vegetative state is alive. Person B responds that life is sacred. Person A is frustrated because this answer does not deal with the original question, but she decides to ask for Person B's reasons for believing that life is sacred. Person B is incensed that Person A would even ask such a question and accuses her of wanting to kill people in persistent vegetative states. Person A has heard it all before and concludes that Person B is a religious wingnut. Meanwhile, the life of democracy ebbs away, as the exchange of questions and answers bleeds into the exchange of epithets and accusations.

Of all the interventions that can fatally interrupt a democratic conversation, one of the most serious is the charge of hypocrisy. I have been thinking about this for the past week, because my first instinct about a week ago was to write a post denouncing the hypocrisy of those who claim to champion the "culture of life." I was outraged by the fact that some people could speak with a straight face about the sanctity of life, while simultaneously supporting preemptive war and capital punishment, or while simultaneously failing to support more progressive health insurance policies and efforts to fight the AIDS epidemic. Fired by righteous indignation, I was prepared to compare the "culture of life" to the proverbial sepulchre: whitewashed on the outside, but inwardly full of bones.

I still feel some of that indignation, but I've also started to realize that such a response, as far as it goes, inhibits the giving and asking of reasons. Instead of opening space for conversation, it declares conversations already closed: positions are ossified and assigned epitaphs. When this happens, the fault can be distributed liberally among various parties. As I mentioned above, if some people ossify their opponents' position by failing to ask them about it, others ossify their own position by refusing to entertain requests for such descriptions. But ultimately, what I have to figure out is how to be a better democratic conversationalist myself, and that means starting with me and assessing blame there. And since my knee-jerk reaction to this conversation was to deliver a pox on the houses of hypocrites, I've been spending some time judging how democratic that reflex was.

Not very, I've concluded. And that concerns me, because I am not alone in resorting almost reflexively to the charge of hypocrisy when I find myself in difficult conversations. I won't provide you with links to prove this, because I'm dealing primarily with my conversational faults. But you probably don't need the links -- probably, you've run across the sweeping suspicions of grandstanding, the unmasking of manufactured sympathy or outrage, the charges and counter-charges of partisan spin. Of course, there may be times when such accusations are part of a democratic conversation: at some point, they may be the reason we have to give when we are asked to defend our belief. So I don't want to suggest that accusations of hypocrisy must be ruled out of democratic discourse; arguably, nothing should be ruled out. But I do want to suggest that charges of hypocrisy must be handled with care, deliberately rather than reflexively. When they are thrown without care into democratic deliberations, they often cause the types of system failure I've outlined above.

Diagnosing a hypocrite depends on knowing motives. Literally, a hypocrite plays a part, feigns an attitude that he does not feel, wears a mask. As William Ian Miller argues in the introduction to his entertaining book on Faking It, we usually recognize hypocrisy in ourselves when we feel split in two. In these moments, there is one "me" that is performing and posing, while another "me" seems to look on in bemusement at how fake the other "me" is being. But as Miller also notes, it is sometimes difficult, even on self-examination, to tell whether "I" am different from what I appear to be, or whether what I appear to be is all "I" am. Diagnosing hypocrisy is difficult even when it comes to my self, whose motives are relatively transparent to me (or at least the "me" that observes the "me" that performs). How much more difficult is it to say with confidence that others are faking it, putting on an act, disfiguring their faces in shows of mock piety! At the very least, we ought to recognize that this is always hard to judge.

Even more importantly, if diagnosing hypocrisy requires knowing motives, the diagnosis cannot be made as a blunt generalization. For example, it certainly may be true that many members of Congress have been putting on a performance with regard to the Schiavo case. But it hardly follows from this that every supporter of Schiavo's parents is hypocritical or insincere. The reverse is also true: if some pro-life protester outside Schiavo's hospice can be proven hypocritical, or even if some Congressional leader dissimulates, neither fact counts as evidence that every member of Congress interested in the case was interested for base reasons.

Sometimes ripping masks off of hypocrites is called for, but sometimes I feel like our national conversations run like bad episodes of Scooby Doo. The episode starts with the unmasking of some villain. A few minutes later, our heroes run into someone with a similar looking mask and cheerily begin trying to rip it off too -- only to discover that this is not a mask, but an actual face. Like Shaggy and Scooby, we react by running away screaming. In some ways, there is nothing more frightening than an antagonist who is both hostile to our position and perfectly sincere. But as usually happens in Scooby Doo episodes, we learn that the proper reaction to this fearsome character was not to run away, as Shaggy and Scooby did, but instead to sit down with the maskless man and find out his story, as Velma, Freddy, and Daphne usually did.

I don't want to be mistaken here: I'm not saying that it harms democratic conversation to point out the inconsistencies in a position. But not all inconsistency is hypocritical; people can be unaware of inconsistencies in their positions, while hypocrites are aware of inconsistency but indifferent to it. We are all at various points unaware of inconsistency in our beliefs, and one goal of democratic conversation should be to lead our interlocutors to greater consistency. But when we blanket a position with the charge of hypocrisy, we simply stop at pointing out the inconsistency and attributing it to false motives. Charges of hypocrisy do not move us towards resolving that inconsistency. For example, suppose someone supports preemptive war but also opposes abortion. It could be that this person is a hypocrite, but it could also be that she does not see any inconsistency in her position. In that case, it behooves us to ask her how she makes those positions cohere. If we sense that those positions do not cohere, we ought to offer our reasons for thinking so. But this conversation will be much more difficult if we simply assume -- before the exchange of reasons -- that our interlocutor is wearing a mask, or deliberately hiding bones in a whitewashed tomb.

What I'm calling for (elliptically) is nothing new. Basically, it's the Socratic method. Socrates could really zing his interlocutors by pointing out inconsistencies in their positions. But the reason his dialogues sound so persuasive is because he took those positions seriously; he asked his interlocutors for reasons and then patiently went about showing that those reasons did not add up. To practice this kind of patient criticism, of course, Socrates sometimes had to suppress the suspicion that his interlocutors were being disingenuous.

I remember when I read Plato's Republic for an undergraduate course, the entire class was enthralled by the way that Socrates thrashed Thrasymachus in Book I. Thrasymachus dared to argue that justice was a weakness and a vice, whereas injustice was a strength and a virtue. It takes some time for Socrates to realize that Thrasymachus really holds this position, and is not just pulling Socrates' chain. Socrates finally says "I certainly ought not to shrink from going through with the argument so long as I have reason to think that you, Thrasymachus, are speaking your real mind; for I do believe that you are now in earnest and are not amusing yourself at our expense." Thrasymachus responds: "I may be in earnest or not, but what is that to you? --to refute the argument is your business." Socrates agrees, and gets right back to asking questions.

Socrates' exchange with Thrasymachus demonstrates, ironically, that hypocrisy itself is not as damaging to democratic conversation as charges of hypocrisy. Even if Thrasymachus is not in earnest, even if he is not speaking his "real mind," the conversation can continue, so long as Thrasymachus is willing to answer Socrates' questions and Socrates is willing to ask them. But if Socrates had thrown up his hands in indignation and refused to "refute the argument" simply because it was not offered in earnest, the conversation would have stopped prematurely. (There are all sorts of similar exchanges about honesty and earnestness in Book I; in every case, the conversation continues despite mutual suspicions on both sides that the other side is dissembling.) Perhaps one reason Socrates keeps the dialogue going is because it is ultimately hard to tell whether Thrasymachus is in earnest or not. In such cases, it is best for the health of democratic conversation and argument to assume that he is.

This post may be annoying or off-putting in the same way that meta-blogging sometimes is. After all, I've been defending the exchange of reasons, yet I have not myself given reasons for my beliefs about the Schiavo case. If you want to know why I have devoted the post to metadiscourse, I would give three answers: First, my argument doesn't depend on the actual positions being taken up by interlocutors; whatever those positions are, blanket accusations of hypocrisy from either side are usually conversation stoppers, unless handled with extreme care and precision. Second, I've spent the whole post pointing out the weakness of my instinctive response to this tragic case, which indicates that I need to think some more before I can have a more thoughtful response. In comments at various other blogs, I've had different conversations about various aspects of this issue, some of which I think have been reasonably Socratic, and others in which I've phoned it in instead of keeping the conversation going. But in general, I'm still mulling my reasons for belief -- the two "me's" are still dialoguing with themselves before either sallies forth to dialogue with you. Finally, most of the thoughts I've had in relation to the specific aspects of this case have been mentioned elsewhere in other conversations. By contrast, there is a pressing need in polarized conversations to step back and think about conversation itself: what is at stake in making sure it survives, and how can we maintain its health.

Perhaps it seems like a cop out to say that I don't have everything figured out in this case, but that is the least hypocritical answer I can think to give you right now. What I can do is link some more. I can point you to two sources that have been useful for me in trying to sort out the various ethical and legal issues involved in the Schiavo case.

First, an ethics program at the University of Miami has an extensive timeline, complete with scanned images of important legal documents. After scouring these documents, it is impossible not to conclude that the court system did its job very well. If you haven't read the 2003 report of Jay Wolfson, a guardian ad litem, I think it offers an exceptional model of judicial reasoning mixed with humane reflectiveness.

I have also thought a lot about an article I read in the February issue of Harper's before the case began receiving round-the-clock media attention. I cannot recommend highly enough Garret Keizer's "Life Everlasting: The Religious Right and the Right to Die." I recommend this article not because I agree with every conclusion it reaches, but because it still has me pondering whether I do. You can judge for yourself which parts of the article are strongest, and which parts slip unnecessarily into charges of hypocrisy.

Collective Improvisation:
You wrote: "Perhaps it seems like a cop out to say that I don't have everything figured out in this case, but that is the least hypocritical answer I can think to give you right now."

It would be hypocritical to say that you do  have all the answers to the case; it's an extremely difficult, tricky, and emotional situation and not an easy one to navagate in.

I think this is an excellent examination into the current atmosphere of our own "democratic" discussions that we have (or don't really have, as you have pointed out) in our society.

Excellent post. 

Posted by Dave

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/29/2005 12:53:00 PM : Permalink  

That's me  you're talking about... and it's fair to say that there's a good dose of sniping involved in these non-discussions. I could resort to the time-honored "he started it" defense -- with some confidence given the nature of political rhetoric over the last two decades -- and the "no partner for peace" gambit -- the conversation you describe is so hard to actually get past. It's nearly impossible for the two sides (actually, there're more; there almost always are) to agree on terms of discussion such that all they can do is cast their stones and hope there's some kind of neutral party who will take the issue seriously enough to work though the issues -- but that party also has to be sufficiently respected by both sides so that their conclusions might lead to some kind of self-reflection.

This is a bit confused, but I also have to wonder about your definition of hypocrisy as intentional: I would argue that hypocrisy becomes intentional (if it wasn't before) at the point at which a well-founded charge of inconsistency is laid and not resolved , so that any charge of hypocrisy carries with it, in a sense, self-actualizing intentionality. 

Posted by Ahistoricality

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/30/2005 04:48:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comments, Dave and Ahist.

I tried to leave open the possibility that in some cases, expressing our belief that someone is a hypocrite can be part of a democratic conversation. I didn't mean the post to deny that there are inconsistencies which are also hypocritical. But since charges of hypocrisy have such a potential to bring conversations to a close, they should at least be reserved as a last resort, rather than given reflexively.

Even more importantly, I still think it is important not to impute the hypocrisy of one person to an entire group of people who share some of that person's positions. That's the main thing I wanted to get at.

I agree there are different definitions of hypocrisy, not all of which include intentionality as a requirement, although in this one I'm referring mainly to intentional double-facedness. In some ways I think it might be worth restoring some of the specifity of this definition to the word hypocrisy. In common parlance today, most people use it to mean bare inconsistency. But this means the word hypocrite is thrown, its meaning is open-ended. (I agree, though, that it's difficult to settle on terms for debate. But perhaps we've reached the point in many of our national discussions where we have to go back to square one and start with those definitions.)

As to whether all unresolved charges of inconsistency prove hypocrisy, I'm still unsure, since I think it is useful to hold on to individual intention as part of the word's meaning. I'm also worried that currently it is far too easy in our democracy to air our charges of inconsistency (on our blogs, for instance), wait around for someone to answer, and then conclude that because no one does, they are guilty as charged. The other possible explanation for an unanswered inconsistency, of course, is that we are sometimes just talking to ourselves and letting that substitute for actually talking to people whom we believe to be inconsistent. And at any rate, our goal as fellow citizens should be to help one another toward greater consistency and common understanding, rather than to figure out the absolute soonest we can bail on the conversation and cry hypocrisy. (Not that I'm saying you are doing this: just typing out loud here.)

Thanks again for the comments! 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/30/2005 08:55:00 PM : Permalink  

Great post, Caleb!

I'm inclined to agree that intention is important to a good definition of hypocrisy. Of course, the hypocrite doesn't always intend to be a hypocrite as such, any more than a liar always intends to be a liar as such - but the hypocrite always intends something that is hypocrisy (to have the benefits that come with appearing good, regardless of actual good; whatever he may call this), just as the liar always intends something that is lying (even if they think of it as something else, e.g., bending the truth or confusing their opponents, or what have you).

Mere inconsistency can't  be hypocrisy, because some sorts of inconsistency are good inconsistency: e.g., when people act better than their professed principles would consistently allow them to act, or the inconsistency involved in learning (the reason there's an interest in paraconsistent logics in computer sciences is that modeling certain kinds of learning requires allowing inconsistency in the system); and some sorts of inconsistency are fairly neutral (it would be a stretch to say someone is hypocritical because he claims to love chocolate best when his actions consistently show him to prefer vanilla; even if he is charged with the inconsistency). And the same problems arise if we are talking about unresolved inconsistency. If we simply identify hypocrisy with inconsistency, we have to allow that some kinds of hypocrisy are good; which conflicts with the connotations of 'hypocrisy' and isn't in the background of charges of hypocrisy at all. 

Posted by Brandon

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/01/2005 12:20:00 AM : Permalink  

There's something immensely terrifying about the prospect of not wearing a mask. Do we really want to be naked in our face-to-face encounters? Is that even possible? Maybe it's just me.

Excellent post.


Posted by Fido the Yak

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/02/2005 11:40:00 AM : Permalink  

Good post Caleb. I always wonder how someone calling someone else a hypocrite proves a point. I had a fellow on my blog debating me about Terri Schiavo. I kept asking him to defend her starvation and all he could do is ask me questions about what I believed in general and trying to get me to admit I was a hypocrite.

So I told him that I would just concede the fact that I was a hypocrite and asked him how the fact I was a hypocrite excused starving Terri to death. Funny thing, I never heard any more from him.

Just goes to prove that if one's only argument is that the person they are debating is a hypocrite it is quite obvious they don't have a position they can defend.

Posted by Mike Bennett

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/02/2005 03:07:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comments, Fido and Mike. Sorry I've been slow in responding. I think this is the first time a yak has ever commented on Mode for Caleb. I'm obviously honored beyond words.

Fido, I agree that it is terrifying to think of encountering each other without masks, and it's probably true that it is only possible to a limited extent. But that should remind us that in every conversation, our interlocutor is not the only one with a mask.

Mike, I don't think it's necessarily true that when a person calls someone else a hypocrite, this automatically demonstrates that the accuser's position is indefensible. It just means that positions have not yet really been defended. I also think it's possible, as I mentioned, that debates will sometimes reach a point where charges of hypocrisy are well-grounded and truthful. I just think those points are rarer than they are generally taken to be. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/08/2005 08:53:00 AM : Permalink  

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