No-one likes a hypocrite. “Only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core,” wrote philosopher Hannah Arendt. You can be a drinker, a gambler, a serial philanderer, and still possess integrity. But if you do these things while spending your Sundays preaching temperance, suddenly it becomes a lot less endearing. Hypocrisy remains one of the most damning charges you can level at someone.
In recent years, hypocrisy has become a heightened aspect of political discourse and remains a persistent talking point within public life, thanks to both the infinite memory of the internet, and increasing displays of disingenuity from politicians. Parts of the left, it seems, often devote large chunks of time to highlighting the hypocrisies of their political opponents. But does our fixation on hypocrisy risk obscuring more than it illuminates? Is constantly pointing out political hypocrisies a misplaced way to channel our energy?
Hypocrisy is a tool that’s been mastered by the right. It is harder to wield against them – perhaps because they are already starting from a standpoint where the ethical expectations of them are lower (see Boris Johnson’s tendency to tell barefaced lies and have that embraced as just part of his character). It’s by now a widely derided cliche, but the right still like to pretend that leftists owning an iPhone or buying the occasional coffee from Pret is as morally exposing as being a buy-to-let landlord or secretly working for the Adam Smith Institute.
The idea that every young person who supported Corbyn was an effete, kombucha-quaffing elitist – no matter how precarious our actual circumstances – was an integral part of the effort to delegitimise our concerns. During this period, anyone on the left who failed “to say please and thank you on Twitter” (to quote Dawn Foster) risked being called a hypocrite: so much for the kinder, gentler politics! Just because the right use the concept in stupid and vexatious ways doesn’t mean we should abandon it entirely, but holding it up as the single greatest vice is likely to backfire.
When it comes from the left, on the other hand, the accusation of hypocrisy can be self-defeating. Consider the online practice – aimed primarily at liberal pundits and politicians who campaigned against Jeremy Corbyn – of screenshotting contradictory, previous public statements, accompanied by the question: “this you?”. It’s reasonable to apportion these people with some share of the blame for the demonisation of Corbynism, and their hand-wringing about the bad things which have happened since is undeniably annoying. But the “you got what you wanted!” approach, while understandable, can be counter-productive. What is it supposed to achieve? If we are waiting for an apology or self-reflection, we’ll be there a long time. But more importantly, there are certain shared interests between liberals and the left, and causes where it’s useful to have as broad a coalition as possible in opposition: the police, crime, courts and sentencing act for example, or the government’s Rwanda asylum plan.
It’s possible to hold someone in contempt while still recognising their support might be tactically useful to the causes you care about. If we are going to spend time criticising high-profile centrists, it makes more sense to save this for when their opinions are actually bad (AKA the vast majority of the time) instead of hectoring them on the rare occasion they arrive at positions in line with our own. If someone’s political commitments are dependent on not being made fun of on Twitter, they’re clearly not very deep to begin with but that doesn’t matter. More important than their moral consistency is the question of what we can get from them.
Beyond that, hypocrisy is rarely a useful framework for understanding politics. People are capable of being contradictory, but at the same time, there is usually some degree of ideological consistency to what appears like hypocrisy. Maybe this is a semantic point, but I don’t think it’s hypocritical per se to be opposed to abortion on the grounds of being ‘pro life’ while at the same time supporting the death penalty – both stances are underpinned by state domination, the denial of bodily autonomy, and violence towards the poor and disenfranchised. There is an internal logic which unites them, even if on the face of it they seem laughably inconsistent.
Similarly, some rightwing commentators have accused the left of hypocrisy for being pro-choice while simultaneously supporting trans rights (on the basis that doing so apparently erodes the category of ‘woman’), when it’s clear to us these positions are united by entirely consistent principles of bodily autonomy. To consider another example: is it really hypocritical to care more about white refugees than Brown and Black ones? Or is it just racist? It is possible to be both, of course, but making hypocrisy the centrepiece of our analysis risks obscuring the ideologies behind these disparities; in this case, a form of white supremacy which is no less corrosive for being perfectly consistent.
Even when it’s justified, hand-wringing over the morality of evidently malicious people and institutions is usually pointless, and about as insightful as chortling that the Royal Family are the real benefits scroungers. It can be a useful rhetorical tool, but we have seen time and time again that it achieves very little on its own (no amount of pointing out the irony prevented the Home Office from deporting a gay Nigerian man last month while at the same time sporting a rainbow flag logo.) In politics, there is no referee rewarding good behaviour, moral consistency and a sense of fair play.
If you are responsible for suffering then it doesn’t really matter if you do so hypocritically or with integrity. There’s nothing honourable about adhering to your principles if those principles are terrible. If I was relying on food banks or at risk of deportation, I’m not sure I’d care whether I was being oppressed in a ‘honest’ way. Often, when the left tries to skewer the right on hypocrisy, it falls into the trap of reifying the right’s ideals. Take the trope of the anti-LGBTQ politician revealed to have been engaging in homosexual behaviours. Whenever an anti-gay politician is revealed as gay (or even just engaging in homoerotic horseplay), the glee to denounce them often takes on a homophobic tenor of its own: RT if you think it’s ironic that this evangelical Christian is himself a degenerate pervert!
“Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition,” wrote political scientist Frank Wilholt. “There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect”. How can you be a hypocrite if your most abiding belief is: ‘people like me should be able to do whatever we want’? What private indiscretion could reveal that to be inconsistent? We are not going to scold our opponents, who do not care about our moral assessment, into causing less harm. What matters is building power for the principles we believe in. There is nothing more futile than appealing to the better nature or sense of shame of people who have neither.
James Greig is a freelance journalist.