Everyone hates a hypocrite. It might be Russell Brand attacking the rich from some multimillion pound penthouse, David Cameron calling for an end to tax avoidance whilst holding shares in an offshore fund, or the tutorial partner who claims they’re a utilitarian, while failing to donate any money to charity.
But hypocrisy, in the vast majority of cases, doesn’t deserve its poor reputation. First, hypocrisy is the inevitable outcome of high ideals. Those who aspire to strict morality are just as fallible as those who don’t. All too often they fall short, and become hypocrites for preaching what they cannot practise. It isn’t appropriate to jump on their imperfection, itself so often an reflection of internal doubts. Instead, we should encourage moral hypocrites in their efforts: nurture rather than disparage.
Moreover, charges of hypocrisy are largely irrelevant to genuine political debate. Think of the Daily Mail distracting its readers with outrage at world leaders flying to a climate summit (they should, I presume, be taking sailboats). Or consider the derailing of a debate about immigration by ‘revelations’ that Nigel Farage has a German wife and a French surname. Both divert attention from the message to the messenger, adding nothing relevant to the argument. An idea’s veracity is independent of those who hold it, hypocrites or not.
Finally, hypocrisy is ubiquitous in its misapplication. Nothing is easier than to perceive inconsistency in opponents, especially when you’re searching for it. But all too often such allegations of hypocrisy are the result of mistaken assumptions, misconstruing your opponent’s positions or eschewing research.
Warren Buffet supports higher taxation, so why doesn’t he give more money to the US government? Well, he wants higher taxes so the government can provide public goods to solve collective action problems, something his singular contribution won’t accomplish. The Prime Minister opposes tax avoidance, so why does he have shares in Blairmore? Actually it was the fund that was tax exempt, not the investors. These misapplications are themselves invidious, as well as diminishing the force of genuine hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy can be galling and, when from dishonesty or real vice, rightly so. But in most cases, a charge of hypocrisy is at best distraction, and at worst deception. Next time you consider calling someone a hypocrite, think twice. It’s better to play the ball and not the man.