A Beginner’s Guide to Avoiding Hypocrisy

The scales of justice. Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash

People have a great deal of trouble recognizing hypocrisy. The working definition seems to be, “something done by a person I don’t like.” That’s emotionally satisfying for those who yearn for outrage but, after one reaches a certain level of intellectual sophistication, it feels a little contrived. They deserve a better definition.

I’ve put together a helpful listicle about hypocrisy for those new to internet arguments. Falling into one of these traps will drop you to the level of the basest partisans and ideologues. By learning to avoid them, you can rise above the chest-thumping chimpanzees of tribal politics.

Don’t obsess over your opponent’s hypocrisy

It may be counter-intuitive to make this the top item on a list about avoiding hypocrisy, but this is a case of “first, remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Most hypocrisy accusations are just excuses for the lazy and simple-minded to wave away contrary opinions so they don’t have to think about them. You can be better than that.

If you truly believe in a principle, then sacrifice for it

A principle that you only invoke to criticize the other team isn’t a principle at all, it’s a rhetorical weapon. If you truly believe in a principle, then you must be willing to apply it to yourself and your allies. If you can’t think of any time that you and your side have violated that principle, that’s a red flag. It’s likely that you have a blind spot in how you’re applying it.

Think of the people who defend “political correctness” as simply being common courtesy. While many of those people do truly care about etiquette, it’s hard to miss the vocal few who demand politeness from others while making frothy, obscenity-laden rants against any who oppose them. These people should ask themselves whether they really care about politeness or if it’s just pretext.

The same problem lies at the fringes of the anti-bullying crowd. Opposing bullying is a great idea. Singling out alleged bullies, then dogpiling them, is not actually anti-bullying. It’s an especially ugly, self-righteous form of bullying.

Be able to recognize when you were wrong, and your enemies were right

Visualize the yin-yang symbol of Taoism. The center of the dark spiral contains a spot of light; the center of the light spiral contains a dot of dark. Humans and their politics are the same way. If you find yourself thinking that you (or your party, or your ideology) have always been right, and your enemies always wrong, then it’s time slap yourself in the face, because you’re living in a dream world.

The Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries advocated for Women’s Suffrage and electoral reform. They also advocated for eugenics and prohibition. Very few people would say that all those causes were good, or that all of them were bad.

Some people might try to say that the good causes don’t really count as progressive, or, alternately, that the bad ones don’t really count. That’s intellectually dishonest. If you count yourself as a progressive — or identify your enemies as progressives — then you’re using a label that includes both good and bad.

Symbolic arguments are beneath you

Every time a new US president is sworn in, we enact our sacred American tradition of saying he (or she, eventually) is worse than Hitler plus Stalin multiplied by Mao. Then the other half of us responds angrily by saying that the Sanctity and Honour of the Oval Office is being impugned upon. Every damn time.

The sanctity of the Oval Office was breached before Washington stepped down. It’s not a thing anymore. Arguments like this always boil down to, “you’re not showing enough respect to a symbol that I respect.” There’s no objective way to measure how much respect something is receiving, there’s no ‘correct’ amount of respect a symbol is due, and there’s no motivation for people to reach an agreement where they respect each other’s totems. It’s pointless.

As an example, recall the argument over Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. This was a breach of etiquette towards a national ritual with the hope that it would reduce the violence done by police officers to African-Americans. Part of the argument was tactical: did Kaepernick’s kneeling do anything to protect African-Americans? That’s an interesting empirical argument, but it wasn’t the main show.

People mostly wanted to argue over how disrespectful he (and other kneelers) were being, if at all, and whether it was justified. There isn’t really any way to resolve that. Right-wing people found it very disrespectful; left-wing people found it less disrespectful, and besides, they could think of any number of times right-wing people were disrespectful to them. To the right-wingers, of course, those alleged offenses weren’t disrespectful at all, and it was hypocritical of the left-wingers to bring them up while they were disrespecting the anthem. And on it goes.

Don’t believe the worst

The Outrage-Industrial Complex will always find horrible personal failings in their political opponents. Any trace of greed, dishonesty, bigotry, ambition, or cynicism will be magnified a hundred-fold. If there aren’t any traces, they’ll be invented. Don’t buy into it.

I had a personal experience with the politics of personal attack that disillusioned me. Towards the end of W. Bush’s tenure as President, he appointed a new Surgeon General. His appointee had been a medical researcher during the ’70s and ’80s, when the medical community was trying to understand HIV/AIDS. At the time little was known about it besides that it was mostly hurting the gay community.

A popular explanation on the religious right was that gay people were being punished for their blasphemous behavior. This was not a view shared by the medical community, but they didn’t yet have a solid explanation of their own. The Bush appointee’s hypothesis was that anal sex was more likely to involve micro-tearing than vaginal sex (even with lubrication), so there was greater risk of spreading STDs among gay men than straight people.

My camp, the Bush opponents, responded to this appointment by bringing up his research and claiming it was proof of homophobic bigotry. Though I considered Bush to be one of the worst presidents in US history, this outrage struck me as a smidgen manufactured. Perhaps this doctor deserved a more charitable interpretation of his work. It was, after all, an attempt to protect gay people from a horrific disease.

Avoid the dregs

I’ve saved the best advice for last: “bad company corrupts good character.” Yes, it can be fun using Twitter or the blogosphere to follow writers who have the mentality of rioting soccer hooligans. It can also be fun to shoot up heroin. Just because something is fun doesn’t mean it’s a wise choice.

If someone seems to have all the answers, a ready response for any possible disagreement, and a sharp criticism for any critic, that’s a red flag. It doesn’t mean that they have all the answers. They haven’t solved all the mysteries and contradictions of human nature nor have they resolved all the different perspectives and needs of different groups of people. It means that they have glib answers that will make you ignorant and narrow-minded if you follow them.

Writers who allow for nuance, admit their failings, and are brave enough to say, “I don’t know,” are the path to wisdom.

Armchair historian, working class philosopher.

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