Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Resolving hypocrisies

Accusations of hypocrisy are the low-hanging fruit of political debate. It's such an easy charge to make because hypocrisy is ubiquitous. Everyone is a hypocrite sometimes, and for politicians, it's basically a job requirement. But these accusations are so common not just because they are so easy to make, but also because they are very satisfying to make. They allow us to enjoy a small moment of moral superiority as we think about how scheming and unprincipled our enemies are.

The problem with accusations of hypocrisy is that they are especially weak arguments when it comes to trying to persuade people who don't already agree with you. Because hypocrisy is so common, we all have a great deal of experience in rationalizing it away when we need to. When someone accuses a politician you like of hypocrisy, it's really easy to make excuses for it. And I don't just mean bullshit, self-serving excuses. Real life is loaded up with genuine complexities, so any straightforward statement of principle is necessarily a simplification. Principles are like moral heuristics. They're extremely useful rules of thumb for guiding behavior, but there are exceptions to every rule, and those exceptions will always look like hypocrisy when viewed unsympathetically.

There's also an ambiguity at the heart of every accusation of hypocrisy, and one which is rarely acknowledged. The essence of such an accusations is that some behavior is at odds with a previously articulated principle, which is a kind of contradiction. When two ideas are in contradiction, that contradiction can be resolved by abandoning either idea.

I've been thinking about this recently as a result of the attack last week on the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Or rather, as a result of the conversations in the media (including social media) which have been provoked by that attack. Specifically, the conversations about free speech, and the accusations of hypocrisy raised against free speech advocates.

Consider this article, which I take to be a representative example of the genre: As a Muslim, I'm fed up with the hypocrisy of the free speech fundamentalists. I disagree with this article on several points (first and foremost, the use of the term "free speech fundamentalists", as if the dogmatic insistence on free expression is as bad as the dogmatic insistence on censorship), but for the purposes of this post, I'm just interested in the accusation of hypocrisy. You might also want to take a look at this video, in which Raza Nadim repeatedly raises the same point:

At about the 11-minute mark, Dan Hodges attempts to take hypocrisy off the table and asks Nadim whether a non-racist "blasphemy" against Islam would be acceptable for publication or not, and Nadim doesn't exactly answer. He sort of dances around a bit and tries to change the subject. Everyone should be allowed to publish whatever they want, he says, as long as the rules are applied to everyone fairly and consistently.

Well, who could disagree with that? Certainly not me, but his answer begs the question. Much more importantly, Nadim doesn't specify what result he's looking for. Hodges's question was designed to evade the ambiguity of hypocrisy and nail Nadim down on a specific position regarding free speech in principle, but Nadim dodged, taking advantage of that ambiguity.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the claims of hypocrisy against Charlie Hebdo are correct, that still leaves the question of which of these two contradictory approaches we should endorse. And that's really the bottom line question underlying the whole debate over free speech. Was it wrong to publish Charlie Hebdo's anti-Islam cartoons, or was it wrong to censor earlier anti-Semitic ones? Simply recognizing the hypocrisy doesn't answer that question, and that question is the crux of the matter.

Stepping back from the specifics of Charlie Hebdo, we're really talking about balancing interests.There will always reasonable disagreements over difficult cases. Even the most "fundamentalist" of free speech advocates recognizes certain exceptions, such as defamation and libel, and there are other exceptions which are rather more controversial. However we resolve these disputes, there will be consequences. Speaking for myself, I'd rather have too much free speech than too little. 


  1. from a logical perspective, isn't pointing out another person's hypocrisy an ad hominem fallacy?

  2. Sorry, Derek, I only just saw this. I think it depends on precisely the ambiguity I'm talking about. Let's say I lecture people about reducing their carbon footprint, meanwhile I'm driving a gas-guzzler, wasting electricity like it's my job, and taking unnecessary commercial flights all over the place. I'm a hypocrite, and you kindly point this out to me. Is that an ad hominem?

    If you're saying "You don't live up to your own standard, therefore no one else should either," that's an ad hominem, I think, because you're trying to discredit my argument by attacking me personally. That's a fallacy. Even though I'm not reducing my carbon footprint, I'm still right that people should. On the other hand, if you agree that people should reduce their carbon footprint and you just want to expose me as a fraud and a liar, that's not an ad hominem at all, because you're not using a personal attack to discredit my argument. That's using a personal attack to discredit me personally. That's fine.