Against the Hypocrisy Charge
You may have heard–Mike Pence used private email servers and was hacked. Jeff Sessions may have lied to Congress about conversations with Russia. He may have called for impeachment against those who lie in an official capacity during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. And while he has recused himself from investigations into Russian tampering with US elections, very few people think he will be impeached. Democrats have responded by calling “hypocrite!” See Paul Begala, Bill O’Reilly for goodness sake, Salon who points out the racial hypocrisy of the “law and order” Attorney General, the list goes on.
I think that charge is a failure of a political strategy, and I think it exposes assumptions about consistency in political life that should be put to rest in the name of effective political resistance. First, I think hypocrisy is a thoroughly liberal charge in the sense that it supposes that the equal application of the law, of the rules, is what will achieve justice. It accepts the notion that private servers of emails should influence public support and only asks that the same criterion be applied to everyone. It points out how “law and order” is really only about how to manage and control them, not how those in authority should be managed and controlled. That is worth establishing. But not if the goal is just another liberal effort to have those principles equally applied, which will fail, and whose only response is well, they are hypocrites.
Here’s the problem: if it is aimed at Republicans who support the current administration, it’s dead in the water. Republicans didn’t really care about the email servers, they cared about discrediting Clinton. They also don’t really care about law and order, they care about managing dissent. Pointing out that they didn’t really care now doesn’t make them less interested in that project. Moreover, the Democratic response to call that treatment of emails unfair instead of, I don’t know, actually trying to show that they were more than a party of the professional classes, is why they are in this situation in the first place.
But it seems like this situation is indicative of the whole problem. The Democrats think the response to all the blatant xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the backlash against the working classes that the repeal of healthcare epitomizes, is to say, but her emails! Again, I wonder, who is that argument directed toward? No one who supports the current administration cares that Republicans also engaged in the use of private email servers or that a current administration official who decried perjury may or may not have (and there are arguments to be made in his defense that he did not in fact purposefully mislead Congress). Yes, undue attention was paid to emails. What more just world is being accomplished by this complaint?
If on the other hand, the charge is aimed at shoring up the resistance, it also fails. First, people already are opposed. Second, it hamstrings the opposition. The charge of hypocrisy when equally applied becomes an argument against arguments for contextual efforts to establish justice, freedom and equality. You support free speech, but not if you don’t agree with it, conservatives say. The response is, we support free speech until it limits the freedom of those who are most vulnerable or directly puts them in danger. The desire is not for equal application of the law so that all may escape the charge of hypocrisy, the desire is for justice, which is contextual.
Charges of hypocrisy assume that what people want most of all is rational consistent positions, when what they want is for their position to win. I worry as a philosopher whose business is rational consistent positions that we fail to win because we are concerned solely with being rationally consistent and not with being persuasive, maybe not even with being right. The question of whether one can be consistent and wrong goes back to Socrates. However you decide it, remarking with great fanfare on the inconsistency or hypocrisy of conservative positions assumes that their position is generally consistent, but that on this point, they are off track. Corey Robin argues that conservatism has always been about radical overhaul of the system under the guise of preserving tradition, that is, it has always been inconsistent. What it is most consistent about is hostility to emancipatory projects among the lower orders. Hypocrisy in the service of these goals might even help achieve the goals.
By contrast, the left is animated by these emancipatory projects. Achieving those ends, rather than conceding the liberal discourse of consistency and the equal application of the law, should be our focus. Hypocrisy as a charge against those in power, I would argue, only makes us feel better about the failure of our rationally consistent positions. It doesn’t lead us to win. I’m not suggesting that the way to win is to pursue hypocrisy. But I am suggesting that the pleasure of rational consistency, the pleasure of finding the hypocrisy in the opposition, might be all we get if we pursue it as a course of action. It does very little work for furthering a position. It assumes that we further our position by convincing our opponents and that our opponents do not agree because they have not encountered a sufficiently rational and consistent argument. I suggest we spend less time trying to convince those with whom we disagree to agree with us and more time trying to convince those who claim to share our goals to pursue political courses and policies that achieve them.